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Theatre Review Downstate, National Theatre, London

Set in a group home for sex offenders in Illinois, Bruce Norris's play pulls no punches

DOWNSTATE is deeply uncomfortable viewing at times and it is all the better for it.

Two real-time extended scenes exclusively occupy the playing time — with the action framed in Todd Rosenthal’s meticulous, ultra-realist institutional setting — and, barely two minutes in, Andy is describing to his childhood abuser Fred how he used to fantasise about killing him by shoving the barrel of a gun down his throat.

The sanguine Fred, played with passive sensitivity throughout by Francis Guinan, seems oddly unmoved as he defies expectation to match Andy’s rage with an outpouring of repentance.

It is just the first of countless times during Downstate that Norris’s lucid yet complex characters turn the tables. Fred does not deny his crimes but feels he has overcome the “illness” he was consumed by and has served an adequate punishment. He sees nothing to gain from endless apologies.

It’s not easy to accept — you feel inclined to take the side of the victim — but what Norris manages to do so cleverly is to find an equilibrium between the characters’ experiences. All of them are spinning on an ever-rotating roulette of trauma and punishment in which no final reward is possible.

That’s most evident in the defining figure of Dee, a caring and matriarchal gay man whose deep sense of justice and readiness to challenge authority renders him perpetually trapped on that wheel.

He maintains that the two-year relationship he had with a 14-year-old boy was loving and consensual. But after 15 years locked up and many more in the home, the tragedies just keep coming.

K Todd Freeman is fierce and tender in equal measure in his outstanding portrayal of the Diana Ross-loving choreographer Dee, while Tim Hopper’s Andy demands attention with his simmering self-righteousness.

When tragedy strikes again it is predictable but nonetheless shocking in its brutality. Directed by Pam MacKinnon, Norris’s deeply compassionate work shifts perspectives and it is a warning that an underfunded, overly punitive justice system with no interest in rehabilitation serves absolutely no-one.

Runs until April 27, box office:


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