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Downstate

Review - Bruce Norris' Downstate at the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Playwright Bruce Norris is following in David Mamet's blistering footsteps to become the current most urgent provocateur of American theatre. That he does so with more humanity and compassion, however, makes his work all the more stinging - less confrontational, yes, but also less black and white. His writing - whether on race in the brilliantly perceptive Clybourne Park, or now in Downstate, which revolves around a houseful of convicted paedophiles - altogether more shaded.  

The play begins with Andy (Tim Hopper), a one-time victim of paedophile abuse, facing down his abuser Fred (Francis Guinan), who used to be his piano teacher, as he still seeks to come to terms with what happened to him when he was 12 and which has impacted his entire life.

But things have happened to Fred, too - he is now wheelchair-bound, following an attack that broke his spine. His wife, with whom he became estranged, has long since died. Now he's living in a half-way house, with three other convicted paedophiles, who've served time for their crimes but are still under parole supervision, and subject to plenty of restrictions, from being banned from using the internet or having smartphones to where they can even shop.

Norris steers a delicate and deliberately unsettling line between extending sympathy (or at least understanding) to the perpetrators as well as their victims - we only meet Andy, but others are alluded to, including the young boy that a gay choreographer had a prolonged 'relationship' with when he was 37, and the young daughter abused by her father who is another resident. Is reparation even possible? Are these men to be cast out into society's wilderness forever?

They have committed one of society's ultimate taboos - and the play is genuinely upsetting. As questions of justice and empathy swirl around, it simultaneously grips and appals. It makes you constantly re-examine your own assumptions and prejudices. It dares to make these perpetrators intensely human, not just monsters.

Pam MacKinnon's staging, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in October 2018 in a co-production with the National, is at once intense as required yet also spellbindingly ordinary. And that's what makes it all the more extraordinary. It feels utterly real. The effortlessly naturalistic Anglo-American cast is both gritty and generous, with particularly striking work from Guinan and Hopper as the perpetrator and victim we meet, Glenn Davis, Eddie Torres and K Todd Freeman as the other residents of the house, and Cecilia Noble as their parole officer.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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