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Review: Bruce Norris proves theatre can be challenging and entertaining with Downstate, National Theatre

It is a play that challenges your thinking and reactions.

Downstate poster

When I went to see Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park at the Royal Court I wrote: "Norris' skill at handling such a delicate and inflammatory subject in a way that makes you laugh but equally question yourself is quite genius."

And with Downstate he's done it again.

This time rather than tackling racism he's turned his attention to sexual abuse, setting the drama in a house share where four convicted child abusers are living on license having served their jail sentences. 

They are on the sex offenders register, GPS tagged, banned from using the internet and smartphones and restricted to where they can go.

It opens with the quiet, polite, wheel-chair bound Fred (Francis Guinan) being confronted by Andy (Tim Hopper) one of his victims. 

Difficult confrontation

Now grown up with a family of his own, Andy struggles to articulate how he feels about what happened and how it has affected him. Matters aren't helped as Fred's fellow housemates come and go.

Gio (Glenn Davis) is confident and close to the end of his parole period, Felix (Eddie Torres) is quiet, religious and keeps himself to himself and Dee (K Todd Freeman) is the father-figure, sorting the groceries and checking everyone is on schedule.

Norris initially keeps the details of their offences in the background.

Scenes of domesticity

What you see is a domestic, pseudo-family setup, bickering over chores and grocery bills, reprimands over missed medication and queues for the bathroom.

It is funny, an almost odd-ball comedy, they present as human beings with normal feelings and flaws, there aren't evil glints or devil's horns but amid the humour and 'ordinariness', you can't help searching for signs.

Later, a visit by their parole officer (a sublime Cecilia Noble) is a further reminder of the justice that has been served. Later details of the past crimes will drop like incendiaries in the domestic landscape.

Questions about justice

Downstate raises questions about justice, how and if it can be served.

How do you weigh up the life long impact on the victim vs the time the abuser serves? Can retribution ever be just? Is the harsh treatment of one within the justice system, justified for the safety of the wider community?

It is a play that challenges your thinking and reactions.

Superb performances

The writing and performances are the best I've seen for a long time. The dialogue is so natural, the performances effortless you forget you are at the theatre, it belies the precision, skill and timing of the delivery.

This is a challenging, difficult play with humour and wit inflected with wisdom, carefully balancing entertainment without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter. 

It's getting ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ from me and is at the National Theatre until 28 April. It's two hours and 25 minutes including an interval.

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