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Theatre review: Downstate

Complicated: Fred (Francis Guinan) is approached by  his victim Andy (Tim Hopper, below)



National Theatre, London ★★★★★

AN OPENING scene in which a sexual abuse survivor confronts his abuser in the house the latter shares with other sex offenders – and it’s actually funny? This is the radioactive matter of Bruce Norris’s new play, set in a Chicago suburb, and which puts a match under the knee-jerk public discourse commonly surrounding the judicial treatment of sex offenders, and asks us to think again.

Andy was abused by his piano teacher, Fred, when he was 12 years old. After years of therapy, he’s come to ask Fred to read to him a reconciliation statement, but his efforts to do so are almost farcically disrupted by the coming and goings of Fred’s electronically tagged housemates, all of whom have committed acts of abuse of varying severity.

Varying in their eyes, perhaps: what unites these men is their capacity for deceit and deluded sense of right and wrong. Two even insist the abuse they inflicted was a form of love.

Fred, meanwhile, seems an endearing picture of doddery docility, but remains a predator to his bones.

It is a bold move to give so much stage time to the perpetrators. Norris allows no simplistic gesture of atonement for his four sex offenders, but he does ensure we see them always as complicated and vulnerable human beings.

Heart-wrenching: Cecilia Noble plays a humane parole officer

Pam MacKinnon’s production, devised with Chicago’s blisteringly good Steppenwolf theatre company, and which also stars Cecilia Noble as a world-weary, heart-wrenchingly humane parole officer, is a slow-burn that, by the end, has become a furnace.

To reverse the sentiments of a John Major quote, Norris argues, without preaching, that it befits us all to understand a little more, and condemn a little less.