Downstate by Bruce Norris. The Dorfman, the National Theatre, London SE1. 5***** William Russell

by Bruce Norris.
5 *****
The Dorfman, the National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX to 27 April 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Th & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 25 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7152 3000

Review: William Russell 21 March.
A play to shock and inform – memorable.

This powerful, disturbing play presents the men, all paedophiles, as human beings, not simply the monsters of newspaper headlines, rather as deeply flawed men who have done terrible things. They have served their sentences and now, tagged and their freedom restricted – they have no mobile phones, no internet access – share a communal house. A middle aged man, Andy Hopper, and his wife have come to meet one of the inmates, Fred, an elderly apparently benign and charming one time piano teacher, who uses a wheelchair. It is an awkward encounter with Andy inarticulate and his pushy wife taking control. It ends unresolved as whatever they want Freddie simple bats away with the charm of old age, although Andy forgets to take his mobile with him. The world weary probation officer in charge of overseeing the men visits, and we meet the other inmates, including Bible quoting Gio who wants to be allowed to attend his 15 year old daughter’s birthday, the gay, funny and charming Dee who runs things and is unrepentant about what he did in the past, which he regards as a love affair not a seduction, and Felix, a fantasist with a high on drugs girlfriend who, when challenged about anything, insists on quoting her civil rights.
It is funny, sad and enlightening. The laughter does die in the second act after Andy returns alone whereupon things get very disturbing indeed as we discover that he wants Fred to sign some a confession. A reconciliation contract, about what he did to two of the boys he taught. He is either seeking some kind of weird revenge or the admission will prove some kind of catharsis from the damage done to him by Fred. We also find out just why Fred is in that chair and it is not just due to old age. But what really upsets is as that as they confront one another Fred’s charm starts to work all over again, and Andy starts to succumb. Fred clearly believes he did nothing wrong and insists he did to the other boy what Andy claims he did to him.
The play provokes, and what you learn in undeniably shocking. But it does shine light on a world most people only know in terms. Norris’s abusers are not all reluctant to face up to reality – certainly Fred knows what he did. The performances are exemplary, with Francis Guinan as Fred creating an apparently loveable but actually detestable man behind the appealing veneer of old age, K Todd Freeman as the unrepentant Dee showing a kind and caring, a man who for all that is a sexual predator, and Celia Noble as Ivy, the probation officer who is weighed down by having to look after such people, wonderfully resigned and patient.
At the end it erupts in unexpected violence and one leaves the theatre sadder, certainly wiser and with received opinions challenged. It is not an easy evening but it does everything theatre should do and should not be missed. It could, however, be rather too rich a dish for Shaftesbury Avenue if it is to have an afterlife. This joint production with Steppenwolf’s Upstairs, Chicago well directed by Pam MacKinnon bids to be one of the highlights of the National’s current season.

Gio: Glenn Davis.
Dee: K Todd Freeman.
Fred: Francis Guinan.
Andy: Tim Hopper.
Ivy Cecilia Noble.
Felix: Eddie Torres.
Effie: Aimee Lou Wood.
Em: Matilda Ziegler.
Cops: Mark Extance, Brinsley Terrence, Shelley Williams.

Director Pam McKinnon.
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal.
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos.
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman.
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing.
Company Voice Work: Gigi Buffington.
Production photographs: Michael Brosilow.

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