Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

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Silk purse/sow’s ear

Cast Robert James Waller’s dazzlingly awful 1992 novel out of your mind. While you’re at it, you might as well forget Clint Eastwood’s almost-as-stinky 1995 film adaptation. This is, yes, still the soapy, predictable story of a four-day love affair between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer in 1960s Iowa, and until the last ten minutes of the show you’ll be (at least) three steps ahead of the plot. Somehow, though, bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown have managed to dig behind Waller’s laughably purple prose to uncover a surprisingly effective portrait of two lonely people who find themselves awakened by a chance meeting.

The key – and the element that makes the show a must-see, whatever your opinion of the (dismal) source material – is Brown’s beautiful score. Norman has done an admirable job of stripping away the novel’s (many) excesses so that the story is told simply and clearly, but the songs are the star here. The show was a relatively fast flop on Broadway, but this is among the best theatre scores of the last decade, although it’s not always easy listening. Brown isn’t afraid of dissonance, and he isn’t afraid to experiment with song structure, but this is a lush, lyrical, haunting set of songs that have an astonishing emotional pull. It’s a pleasure, too, to hear Brown’s own orchestrations for a ten-piece band in a space as small as the Menier; under Tom Murray’s musical direction, the band gives a superlative account of this gorgeous but demanding music.

The production, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. There’s no faulting the performances, although neither Jenna Russell nor Edward Baker-Duly have the pristine, lightning-in-a-bottle voices of their Broadway counterparts. They’re both good singers – really good singers – but this music stretches them. That said, the show gains immeasurably from being seen in such a small space, and Russell in particular is quietly heartbreaking, offering a delicate, finely-shaded portrayal that gives Francesca a level of complexity you’d never imagine possible from reading the novel. There’s fine support, too, from Gillian Kirkpatrick as a nosy but caring neighbour, and (in several small roles) from Shanay Holmes, whose rendition of the lovely ‘Another Life’ is the production’s musical highlight.

Less impressive is John Bausor’s overly-complicated set, a combination of turntables and flimsy sliding panels that sometimes threatens to bring this already slow-paced show to a grinding halt. Yes, Tal Rosner’s video projections (a starlit sky, Iowa cornfields, a small-town Main Street) look exquisite against the bleached wood planks of those wooden panels – but at the performance I attended (a very late preview) a truck unit momentarily juddered to a halt before it moved all the way offstage, the two sliding wooden panels wobbled every time they moved in a way that called into question whether they’ll survive the run (I’ll find out, I suppose, I’m going back for the final matinee), the door of Francesca’s fridge kept stubbornly refusing to close, and several ominous crashes were heard from backstage during the (numerous) set-changes. It’s one of those sets that would look great if everything worked, particularly as sensitively lit by Tim Lutkin – and it’s great to see designers trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in a venue with so little backstage space, but the show might have been better served by a simpler design.

That said, though, Brown’s score is so lovely, and Jenna Russell’s performance is so exquisite, that any shortcomings in the production surrounding them seem almost irrelevant. I don’t know whether I’d call this a great musical, and I wouldn’t say it was a completely unimpeachable production, but the good elements are so good that it’s more than worth an evening of your time. To draw music this beautiful, and a performance so brimming with yearning, out of a novel as truly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly bad as The Bridges of Madison County is a remarkable achievement. You aren’t going to get very many opportunities to hear a live performance of this score in this country, and Jenna Russell is doing some of the very best work of her career. Don’t miss it.

Bitter lemon

Oh, come on. You didn’t think a David Mamet play about the Me Too movement with a thinly-disguised Harvey Weinstein figure as the central character was actually going to be good, did you?

Please.

YES, Bitter Wheat is a thoroughly, utterly, completely dreadful play. Once upon a time, David Mamet might have been capable of writing a pungent, sharply funny satire about horrible Hollywood people doing horrible things and then trying to evade the consequences of their horrible behaviour. That time, on the evidence of the fiasco currently lumbering through a summer run at the Garrick, is long past. The plot is predictable enough – Barney Fein, producer and all-round sleazeball, invites/entices jet-lagged young Anglo-Korean film-maker Yung Kim Li into his apartment and attempts to Do Nasty Things To Which She Doesn’t Consent, she sets off the fire alarm, and the scandal finishes his career – after which, God help us, wacky hijinks, or what Mr. Mamet believes are wacky hijinks, ensue in the final scene. Mamet seems to be somehow under the impression that he’s written a comedy. To say he hasn’t is a breathtaking understatement.

It’s not the scenario, actually, that’s at fault here. It would be as good a starting-off point as any for a satire about the repulsive behaviour of a powerful Hollywood shitbag-in-a-suit. Mamet, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be attempting anything as evolved as satire here. Bitter Wheat, it turns out, is less a play and more just an over-the-hill reactionary prick ejaculating sexist/racist/unpleasantly right-wing comments over the stage for 85 minutes, interspersed with feeder lines from a cast of (very good) supporting actors who all have too little to do. That might be OK, or at least not completely excruciating to sit through, if Barney Fein’s verbal diarrhoea was funny; there are two or three reasonably big laughs in the first half of the play, but it mostly isn’t.

And that, in turn, might not matter so much if the production’s above-the-title star seemed to be in any way awake. John Malkovich – an astonishingly potent stage actor when he wants to be, as anyone who saw him in Burn This (also far from a first-rate play) years ago will tell you – is phoning it in here. And by ‘phoning it in’, I mean he seems to be faxing his performance over a dodgy connection from a small town somewhere in Uzbekistan. It can’t be easy to take a starring role and then have to get up eight times a week in front of a less-than-completely-enthusiastic audience, wearing a laughably bad fat suit, to deliver an incoherent string of witless lines in a slack mess of a play sloppily directed by its entirely too self-regarding author, but when hundreds of people per performance have paid mostly to see him it would be nice if he could give the impression that he is actually in the building when he’s onstage. Apparently that’s too much trouble.

The supporting actors, while they don’t have enough to do, all emerge with their dignity intact. Matthew Pidgeon is lucky – he has nothing to do between the first scene and the curtain call, which means he’s spared having to navigate the (considerable) worst of his brother-in-law’s writing – and Teddy Kempner, whose epic beard is worth at least a couple of bonus points, does as much as he can as Fein’s slightly dubious doctor, a role Mamet possibly wrote while unconscious. Doon Mackichan, as Fein’s PA Sondra, makes by far the strongest impression, and she’s the most interesting person onstage – a woman working for a man she knows is a serial sex abuser, who disapproves of his behaviour but has made a great deal of money because of him, who has never been on the receiving end of that side of him herself, and who isn’t inclined to rat him out to the FBI when the shit hits the fan. Somewhere within those contradictions there’s a much better play, and a much more insightful look at how people like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away for so long with behaviour everybody knew about. The key, probably, would be to keep the Weinstein character offstage for as long as possible, rather than wallowing in his repulsive behaviour for 85 minutes of stage time. Twenty-five years ago, that’s a play Mamet could possibly have written. Twenty-five years is a long time… as you’ll learn in the twenty-five-minute second act of Bitter Wheat, which feels like it.

Sweet sorrow

See all those stars on the poster? Matthew Warchus’s stellar revival of Present Laughter deserves every last one of them, and so does Andrew Scott. This is a blissfully funny, absolutely pitch-perfect production of one of Noel Coward’s better plays: every laugh lands, Scott finds the undercurrent of melancholy underpinning washed-up matinée idol Gary Essendine’s preening, the supporting cast are faultless, and the gender-switching of a couple of key characters works spectacularly well (if you haven’t seen it – it’s on for another week and a half, I saw it a month ago and I’m playing catch-up again – it’s getting the National Theatre Live treatment, but not until November). And the fabulous high-waist wide-leg trousers designer Rob Howell gives Indira Varma’s dryly hilarious Liz Essendine deserve an Olivier award of their own.

NOT so stellar, unfortunately, is the visitor experience at the Old Vic, and I don’t mean the outside toilets. The usher in the section where I was sitting – dress circle left – took an unfeasible amount of pleasure in yelling at anyone she suspected of taking a photograph. I do get why they don’t want people taking pictures of the set, although if you don’t want people taking pictures of the set one very simple solution would be NOT to build the stage out beyond the proscenium so that you can’t hide the set behind the curtain until the lights go down – but I’m afraid I take great exception to being scolded as if I was a naughty schoolboy, in public, for taking a photograph when I wasn’t. I’m the first one to say theatres should put a bit more effort into policing audience behaviour, but if you’re going to tell someone off you damn well make sure they’re actually doing whatever you’re telling them off for. I complained to the house manager, he apologised – the usher didn’t – and the theatre made a conciliatory gesture, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place (and a couple of conversations on Twitter and elsewhere suggest I’m far from the only person who has been yelled at for no reason by this particular usher). We’re customers, not cattle; as I said, I do understand that certain audience behaviours need to be policed, but there’s a fine line there between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and this usher went way over it.

The thing is, theatre is ephemeral, and the visitor experience contributes to whatever it is you take away from the show. In THIS case, what I took away from the show is that it’s a really, really terrific production – and that I paid for a theatre ticket (admittedly not a particularly expensive one), and for train tickets (more than double the cost of the theatre ticket) on top, for the privilege of getting a bollocking for no good reason from a surly usher who appeared to be on some kind of power trip. The house manager apologised, the theatre took steps to make amends – but I didn’t get the experience I paid for, and since I live 200 miles from London it’s not like it’s easy for me to go back and see the show again. That, I’m afraid, is a waste of my money.


FIVE REVIEWS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!!!

Yes, five: the UK tour of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I in Manchester, Fiddler on the Roof, the last night of the National Theatre revival of Follies, and The Play That Goes Wrong in London, and Sweeney Todd in Liverpool. All seen around the middle of May – but the rest of May and most of June have passed by in a blur, and here we are. So, a quick catch-up – capsule reviews, bullet points, all in one post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I find a reasonable definition of ‘normal’.

THE KING AND I

* Gorgeous set and costumes.
* Pacing sometimes glacially slow.
* Superb performance from Jose Llana as the King.
* Competent performance from Annalene Beechey as Mrs. Anna. Never bad, but also never interesting.
* Cezerah Bonner’s Lady Thiang is the best thing in the show, and her ‘Something Wonderful’ is thrilling.
* Out of kindness, I won’t name the actors who played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Screech-o-rama.
* At these prices – a bit lower than the West End, but only a bit – and in a theatre this size, it’s taking the piss to have just fourteen musicians in the pit.
* The member of the front-of-house staff who rolled the very noisy shutters on the stalls bar (actually in the auditorium) up and then down again during the overture has no business working in a theatre.
* These days, the show’s colonialist point of view looks – let’s be kind – rather patronising.
* The score is marvellous, but this is, I’m afraid, my least favourite of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and this revival didn’t change my mind.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

* A Menier production, booted into the West End – but this time, they’ve done a reasonable job of taking something tiny and building it up.
* They’ve built the set out into the Playhouse’s proscenium, with a runway through the stalls on which actors enter and exit. It pulls you right into the village, and you do, in the stalls at least, have a sense of the show happening all around you.
* Whoever designed the new layout for the seats in the stalls didn’t bother to take into account the fact that people have knees. Ouch.
* Andy Nyman’s Tevye warm, real, moving. Particularly enjoyed the way the deedle-deedle-dums in If I Were A Rich Man became sighs as he washed himself at the village pump.
* Judy Kuhn is vocally massively over-qualified for the role of Golde; it goes without saying that her singing is flawless, but it’s a wonderfully spare, austere acting performance. She’s remarkable.
* Too bad you missed her, she was replaced by Maria Friedman a couple of weeks ago.
* Decent turns in all the supporting roles, too.
* While it’s beautifully acted and designed, director Trevor Nunn doesn’t manage to tap into the piece’s contemporary relevance in the way that, for example, Gemma Bodinetz did in her (even smaller) revival at the Everyman in Liverpool a couple of years ago.
* Selling Anatevka-themed cocktails in the bar before the show is remarkably crass, even by the standards of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

FOLLIES

* Yes I know I’ve written about this production before. I saw it six times. Deal with it.
* I’ve already said that this year’s return engagement was better in nearly every respect than the production’s first iteration in 2017. This final performance was as thrilling an evening as I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
* Thunderous applause as the ladies walked down the staircase in Beautiful Girls; I tend to find that kind of mid-show ovation easy to resist, but this time you couldn’t help get carried along with it.
* Thunderous applause, too – deservedly – for Claire Moore’s Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here, and Joanna Riding’s astonishing Losing My Mind.
* My God, Janie Dee. The most dazzling jewel in an evening that provides, as the song has it, ‘dazzling jewels by the score’. And she was clearly thoroughly moved by the audience’s response at the curtain call.
* Good as Felicity Lott was earlier in the run, it was wonderful to see Josephine Barstow’s heartbreaking, intense Heidi one last time, and she and Alison Langer gave a more-or-less definitive One More Kiss.
* This is a production Sondheim fans will be arguing over for years; for me, even though director Dominic Cooke made a few choices I wouldn’t have made myself, it stands as one of the National’s landmark achievements. It’s certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

*A masterclass in how to take one joke – JUST one joke – and stretch it over two full acts.
* It’s not a long show, and it needs to lose fifteen minutes.
* At best, it’s very funny indeed. The second act is better than the first.
* I didn’t see the original cast, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the current one.

SWEENEY TODD

* Possibly even more austere than the Everyman’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of years ago.
* Set in the present, and definitely an austerity-era Sweeney Todd. This is a startlingly angry production, and the piece’s statement about social (in)justice has possibly never been clearer than it is here.
* It’s in the round and in your face; there’s very little set apart from a few chairs, the turntable stage is moved by the cast, and the costumes are straight out of Primark. And it works.
* It’s not – by far – the best-sung Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen, although Liam Tobin’s Sweeney and Kacey Ainsworth’s hard-as-nails Mrs. Lovett are stronger singers than most of the supporting players.
* Kacey Ainsworth’s Mrs. Lovett is extraordinary – yes, she sacrifices some of the role’s laughs, but it doesn’t matter: she’s utterly terrifying, a backstreet capitalist who will do literally anything to get ahead, and she’s this production’s driving force.
* In such a small production – there’s a cast of just nine – I’ve no issue with there being just four musicians in the band. Tarek Merchant’s arrangements, though, are ham-fisted and not particularly subtle, and there are places – many places – where different choices might have resulted in less of the score’s musical texture being lost.
* And that’s the issue with this production: there’s brilliant work from director Nick Bagnall, from the designers, and from the cast – but it’s a musical, and while I understand the production has limited resources to play with, there’s only so far you can strip back the instrumentation before you start diminishing the piece’s richness. Here, that line is crossed far too frequently, and it needn’t have been, even with just four musicians.

So… there. All caught up. Four musicals, one play, one blog post. As I said, normal service will be resumed… sometime.

Seeing Stars

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There’s a moment late in the second act of Jeremy Herrin‘s star-driven revival of All My Sons, which just opened at the Old Vic, when Sally Field‘s Kate Keller appears to age twenty years and lose six inches of height in the space of about fifteen seconds. Field is the biggest, though by no means the only, star featured in this production, and this is in no way an example of cringeworthy stunt-casting: she’s magnificent, she’s delivering an exceptionally moving performance in this rather creaky play’s juiciest role, and she’s the reason this revival is a must-see even if you think you’re All Millered Out for the year (full disclosure: I do not have a ticket to see Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, mostly because I’d already bought tickets for this and The American Clock by the time it was announced). This is a grand old-fashioned Star Performance, but it’s also a thoroughly nuanced, very intelligent, sharply restrained portrayal of a grieving, haunted woman, and Field shows herself to be an accomplished stage actor who is more than capable of holding her own against, well, pretty much anyone.

She certainly makes mincemeat of her co-star. As Joe Keller, the industrialist whose decision to supply an aircraft manufacturer with cracked cylinder heads cost twenty-one airmen their lives and indirectly led to his own son Larry’s probable suicide, Bill Pullman is perfectly OK. He brings an easy all-American charm to the role, and he has plenty of presence – but that’s all he has. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but there’s also nothing particularly surprising about it, and other actors have found more colours in the character than he does. Next to Field’s blazing star turn, Pullman sometimes seems to fade into the background.

There’s a similar imbalance among this production’s younger players. As fiancée Ann Deever – the one who has The Letter That Explains Everything tucked away in her purse – Jenna Coleman is almost as remarkable as Field. It’s a marvellous, utterly truthful performance, and it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has to negotiate the play’s creakiest plot twist – the revelation of that letter – and she gets away with it, and makes it absolutely plausible that Ann has, for reasons nobody ever explains, chosen to wait three years to reveal the contents of the letter to the Kellers. Opposite her, Colin Morgan – the production’s fourth Big Star, playing surviving son Chris Keller – is, like Pullman, perfectly OK – that is, until the play’s denoument. There’s a fine line between ‘anguished’ and ‘shouty’, and Morgan crosses it several times. A little less, in places, would have been far more.

The production surrounding them is surprisingly by-the-numbers given that it’s directed by Jeremy Herrin. Save for two directorial flourishes – one right at the beginning of the performance, the other right at the very end – this is more or less exactly what you’d expect a star-driven West End revival of this kind of play to look like. That opening coup-de-théâtre, in which the Keller house slowly emerges (on tracks) from a projected collage of images of postwar American suburbia, is dazzlingly theatrical, and the production that follows it, while impeccably paced and consummately tasteful, could do – Ms. Field and Ms. Coleman aside – with a little more grit and a lot more electricity. The play, as I said, creaks around the edges – there’s a reason it has never left the repertoire (just as there’s a reason almost nobody ever revives The American Clock), and it has an undeniable power, but it isn’t Miller’s best piece of writing by any means, and the denoument relies somewhat implausibly on a letter-from-beyond-the-grave that has been kept secret for three years. At the same time, it undeniably still has a great deal of resonance – just look at the horrifying news stories about the design and certification of the Boeing 737 Max, or the ongoing scandal about tainted ground beef that has left more than 170 people across 10 states infected with E.coli – and Herrin is the kind of director who might be expected to underscore the parallels between this play’s plot and present-day news stories about the perils of deregulation. It’s quite surprising, actually, that he doesn’t go there – but he doesn’t, and aside from those opening and closing (at the end, the house slowly disappears back upstage into darkness) moments this is simply a straightforward star vehicle.

It’s not, to be fair, as if there’s anything wrong with reviving a classic drama as a vehicle for a quartet of big stars. It’s just that the combination of these actors and this director could and should have produced something a little less safe than this production. Max Jones’s backyard set, complete with broken tree felled by force-nine symbolism, is expensively naturalistic and full of rich detail – it looks like a house a family has lived in for a long time – and it’s beautifully lit by Richard Howell. There’s no faulting the actors cast as the neighbours either, with particularly charming work from Gunnar Cauthery and Bessie Carter as Frank and Lydia Lubey. Everything is carefully, tastefully put together – but Field and Coleman provide fireworks, and the production surrounding them doesn’t.

Sympathy for the Devil

downstate 1

Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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