Theatre: Downstate, Dorfman Theatre SE1

Four “monsters” are cooped up in a run-down house somewhere in the South of Chicago sprawl – “Downstate” Illinois, writes Christoper Walker.

“Monsters?” Yes, all of them are convicted paedophiles.

The tension is high as they bounce off one another. And in this superb staging, directed by Pam MacKinnon, the audience is drawn into the claustrophobic atmosphere.

This is challenging, disturbing, drama at its best.

Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company has a high reputation for producing innovative, original works, and this joint production with the National Theatre is no exception.

Playwright Bruce Norris is one of their brightest talents, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Claybourne Park.

The quality of his craft is clear, as each of the four main characters gradually reveal details of their crimes, and their troubling, broken, lives.

The States deals with its child abusers in its own, special way, as is demonstrated here.

Once they have served their prison terms, criminals are semi-released back into society, living in halfway homes such as this.

The address of sex offenders is published online (there is a broken window to the left of the stage which someone has shot out).

Local communities can vote to reduce their mobility, banning them, as in this story, from the local supermarket.

They wear electronic tags and their movements are monitored daily by the police.

When this work premiered in the States it required police protection. Fasten your seatbelts.

The play opens with softly spoken Fred (Francis Guinan) being confronted by one of his victims, Andy (Tim Hopper), and his rather annoying wife, Em (Matilda Ziegler).

Confined to a wheelchair for reasons that later become clear, Guinan’s performance is first-class.

His soothing tones and courtesies make us wonder if he is falsely accused. And certainly, as the play unfolds, the audience start to question his accuser’s motives.

But the dilemmas posed by Norris’s writing scream out. No – Fred really is a monster. Can we like him “warts and all?”

This is similarly true of the strongest character, Dee, brilliantly played by K Todd Freeman.

Dee keeps this ramshackle, castaway, group together. Similarly, he is the mouthpiece for much of the play’s conceptual framework.

For many of its best lines, and most challenging questions. There is a remarkable amount of comedy in this piece, and most of it comes from Dee.

He is the product of a brutal, abused childhood – and every bit as guilty as Fred.

We feel guilty laughing at his jokes. There are strong performances across the cast.

Eddie Torres is a superb Felix. His face and body are taut, “physical theatre.”

He emerges peeping from behind a screen, like a wounded animal, or indeed a creature from another world. When he weeps, we feel sympathy for him. Yet brace yourself, the writer is playing with you.

His crime is perhaps the worst.

Glenn Davis provides muscle and energy as Gio, the last of the four offenders, while Cecilia Noble is quite wonderful as Ivy the “P.O.” (Parole Officer) charged with keeping this quartet in line.

No small task. I felt sympathy for her longing for a “key-lime martini.”

Netflix starlet Aimee Lou Wood is suitably annoying as the nasal millennial Effie.

Is Gio trying to seduce her? Is she underage? Is she taking drugs?

This play makes us ask ourselves a lot of questions. I am afraid it does not, however, provide many answers.

But at a time when we are all too prone to see matters in black and white, it does perhaps help us to see there are so many shades of grey. Downstate, Dorfman Theatre, until April 27.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/downstate/dates-listing
Box Office: 020 7452 3000

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