By Bryony Lavery
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Until May 5, 2018
By Jarlath O'Connell
"The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom" so says the clinical psychiatrist Agnetha in Bryony Lavery's 1998 play. She is studying what causes men to become serial killers.
The play explores the thorny issue of pathologising 'evil', whether you can, whether you should, whether people even want it. The play's totally amoral protagonist has abducted and killed a number of girls. Is he evil, or is he damaged?
Her play was inspired in part by the story of Lucy Partington, one of serial killer's Fred West's victims and by a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about the neurological causes of violent crime. It first appeared in 1998, was seen at the National Theatre in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004, when it secured 4 Tony nominations including best play.
This is its West End debut and no doubt at the choosing of its star, Suranne Jones, of Doctor Foster fame. She plays Nancy, the mother of 10 year old Rhona who disappears, and it follows what happens to her over the subsequent 20 years. The play is a three hander and her story is linked to that of Agnetha (Nina Sosanya) who plays the American doctor who has come over to study the serial killer, Ralph, played by Jason Watkins. Like Sosanya, Watkins is familiar from the BBC's witty, navel gazing, satire W1A.
Jonathan Munby's recreation of what is in effect an intimate chamber piece is somewhat lost amid the grandeur of the Theatre Royal Haymarket and designer Paul Wills attempts to fill the stage with screens and projections ends up being fussy more than helpful.
This trio of accomplished actors' totally shine however. Jones carefully calibrates Nancy's journey from carefree Mum to the expert in serial killing she eventually becomes. In a credibility stretching scene she finally gains access to him but it is here that her forgiveness hits the buffers. He has no concept of remorse, which is the key problem. Watkins embodies Hannah Arendt's line about the banality of evil, he's not so much chilling as depressingly nerdy, cataloguing his horrific video tapes like a zealous librarian. The point Lavery makes is that these men can't just be conveniently dismissed as monsters, but that they're damaged, and it is incumbent on us to look at how this might have developed and how the roots of violence are so widespread in our culture, with the abused becoming abusers with a depressing regularity.
Sosanya takes the underwritten role of the doctor and, as she usually does, totally grounds her rather flighty character. Her lecture, which is the most interesting aspect of the play, sets out the research on how mental abuse of children causes changes in the brain which if unchecked will have serious repercussions on their emotional development. Dramatically however this does make the piece resemble a TED talk at times.
So, this Frozen is a sobering night out where nobody sings "Let It Go"