Review – Downstate, National Theatre

Monday 25 March 2019

When a play is described as provocative, thought-provoking, challenging, shocking and in the Dorfman auditorium you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve gone completely doolally taken to self-harming and revisited that steaming pile of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.

But no. We can now (almost) completely forgive the National for that egregious horror as it has given way to Downstate which comes from the provoking pen of Bruce Norris who previously stepped onto the Whinger podium of greatness when he delivered his brilliant Clybourne Park.

That play tackled issues of race in a most hilarious manner. This concerns paedophiles so you can forgive it for not being riotously funny. That’s not to say it’s not funny. It is. Quite often. As evidence we present one particular line about a dog which we must not spoil, and if you’re not one of those squirming at your own laughter you’ll belong to the half of the audience that is gasping at it.

For our entertainment – in a co-production with the Steppenwolf Theatre company –  Mr Norris presents us with a group of four convicted sex offenders living together in a government-owned house in Illinois that is a target for local gun practice. Here, as the restriction zone on them widens, they are monitored by ankle tags and a weary, firm but fair, seen-it-all-before police officer Ivy played by the consistently brilliant Cecilia Noble.

Norris challenges us with a very sticky question; should we recognise those we think of as monsters as human beings? No wonder performances apparently needed police protection when this production was performed in Chicago.

It opens with Andy (Tim Hopper) seeking some form of closure by confronting his childhood abuser, the wheelchair-bound Fred, who mimes playing Chopin at the keyboard when he’s not citing the composer as some sort of justification for abuse. He’s played by Francis Guinan who is credited with appearing in Murder, She Wrote. Was that where he learnt to perform his weird mix of genial avuncularity and childishness that ends up as creepily sinister?

There’s quite a bit of self-pitying going on among the four and a peculiarly self-administered pecking order of criminality. Some see their crimes as less hideous that the others. Dee (K Todd Freeman mesmerisingly good), swishes around unable to understand that he’s done anything wrong. He was dance captain on a Cathy Rigby tour of Peter Pan who fell in love with a 14-year-old Lost Boy. Think about that one. It gives an idea of how cleverly selected Mr Norris’ details are. There’s a very dodgy tightrope of agreeably twisted humour throughout. And just when you think Norris is perhaps being a little too compassionate towards the offenders he whips the rug away and turns everything around. Time and time again. Incidentally Cathy Rigby really did tour in Peter Pan. Several times. Let’s hope good lawyers are poised.

The acting is so good throughout that you almost forget you’re watching acting, even in the smaller roles. Glenn Davis as paedo number 4 is completely natural as is Aimee Lou Wood‘s Em. Matilda Ziegler is compelling as Andy’s wife in the opening scene and Eddie Torres shines in an extraordinarily engrossing scene where Ivy unpicks his lies one by one,  But then Pam MacKinnon‘s production is so nastily gripping that the interval feels like an intrusion. You feel a little grubby by the end and don’t want to be seen clapping too enthusiastically let alone ovating lest you get put on a register. Which is a shame as the cast and production really deserve applause.

It reminds you why you got to the theatre, even if you do emerge feeling as though you’re leaving Neverland.


7 Responses to “Review – Downstate, National Theatre”

  1. Jon Says:

    Bruce Norris is a wonderful playwright. If you ever get a chance to see The Pain and the Itch, don’t miss it.

  2. Andrew Taylor Says:

    I was very impressed by Downstate and by your perceptive review. The acting was consistently excellent and got a very enthusiastic reaction from the audience.
    I saw the play from Seat A1 in the Stalls, one of the £15 flip-up seats at the end of the rows. Can I offer a cautionary word about adjusting your position mid-play. If you lean slightly to your left, (or right if you are at the other end of the row), you will be tipped into the lap of the person next to you, who will have paid considerably more for their seat and will certainly resent the intrusion. Apart from this problem, they seem like an excellent idea. Any thoughts?

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      They sound great as we paid considerably more for good seats in the second row of the stalls (which were still less than for an evening performance). We’d not heard about those aisle seats, thanks for the tip (up) off!

  3. Rupert Says:

    Wholehearted agreement with your review – I had rather lost faith in the theatre recently after too many tedious watch-checkers, but this was just hypnotically good.

    As you say, the range of offences here is brilliantly selected to pick at the socio-legal binary between the OK and the unconscionable, and Dee’s relativist appeal to initiation rites in Papua New Guinea is deeply needling. Performances are flawless throughout, but K Todd Freeman edges top honours for me. I can well imagine Francis Guinan in a Murder She Wrote episode, and yes, he pitches Fred’s gee-golly Midwestern niceness to a level that’s queasily off-key. I loved the set too, the mirage of a surburban home undercut by the institutional fire extinguisher and the noticeboard – they must have had fun deciding what to put on that, and the determined banality of the selection was spot on.

    Small point – isn’t Ivy a parole officer, rather than a policewoman?

  4. tony williams Says:

    A few months after this departed the NT but reading the above I wanted to add my enthusiasm for this brilliant and excellently acted play. Along with Follies this is practically all I’ve seen at the NT in the last 18 months that even justified the visit.

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