Theatre Review: Downstate At National Theatre

Downstate, National Theatre Dorfman ★★★★★

By Johnny Fox Last edited 40 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Theatre Review: Downstate At National Theatre Downstate, National Theatre Dorfman 5

Breathtaking, brave and brilliantly acted, Downstate is a landmark play. It’s listed as a ‘collaboration’ between NT and Steppenwolf, but the Chicago company’s prints are all over this glistening weapon.

Sometimes a play is just arrestingly good. Sometimes it’s also amazingly timely. As the creative legacy of Michael Jackson is re-examined in the shadow of fresh allegations, it’s sensational that the National Theatre should present a piece — by Pulitzer-winning Bruce Norris — which studies ankle-tagged paedophiles who have fetched up in a charitable co-living house in rural Illinois.

Script and acting combine to normalise the characters: could Francis Guinan’s sweet old wheelchair-bound grandpappy Fred really have been the virile young music teacher who taught his underage pupils a special type of fingering? When Tim Hopper’s excellent clockspring-wound insecure Andy comes to confront his abuser with a contract of closure designed by his therapist, he’s almost beguiled by the gentle self-effacement of a man of whom he was once terrified. Matilda Ziegler as his hardboiled wife is most definitely not.

The acting is universally splendid, every character has immense depth and credibility developed by Steppenwolf technique, but Bruce Norris’s script constantly defeats stereotypes and predictability. The way the characters establish a pecking order for household chores based on the comparative severity of their crimes is insightful and thought-provoking. You'll leave this play wanting to talk.

Cecilia Noble’s coffee-mug toting Ivy may start as an amiable wisecracking black woman who wouldn’t seem out of place in Waitress or Hairspray, but she reveals solid police skills when the situation changes. But it’s K Todd Freeman’s ex-choreographer Dee, who loved the young chorus boy he dated for five years before being arrested — that most engages you, and carries you with humour and fierceness through the storylines until he eventually, gently, and beautifully breaks your f*cking heart.

In a word, it is unmissable.

Downstate, National Theatre Dorfman, Upper Ground, SE1. Tickets £25-54, until 27 April 2019.

Last Updated 21 March 2019