Writer and Director: John Patterson
Innocence is an ambitious new two-hander presented by Angel Theatre Company, tackling the rife societal issue of grooming from the perspective of both the accuser and accused.
As the unnamed Man and Boy, Malcolm Jeffries and Theo Watt do a superb job of leading us through their respective tales and it is a testament to their storytelling abilities that this monologue-heavy play doesn’t drag for a moment. Both performers completely inhabit their roles; in Jeffries case he does a clean job of impersonating several characters, and both are genuinely electric to watch.
The piece is staged brilliantly and should certainly be considered another directorial triumph for John Patterson, who also penned the play. Clear character dynamics are established as the audience enter the space, with Man lounging comfortably in a padded chair upstage, while Boy huddles anxiously over a flimsy stool downstage. The imagery of a master and his submissive subject is very effective and aptly sets the tone for the story ahead. Visual levels like this continue to be used intelligently throughout the play as Man begins to unravel when faced with the accusation in the present day, while Boy, recounting the events of the past, seems poised to bring about his downfall.
The writing of the show starts out very strong and the slow build of the relationship between Man and Boy is expertly done. The ways in which moments of special treatment and manipulation (or care and tenderness, depending on your view of the situation) slip in so naturally, almost unnoticeably, is truly disconcerting yet unfortunately accurate of many grooming experiences.
However, Patterson’s desire to leave blame open for debate limits how far the relationship between the pair can eventually develop. When every action needs to be usable by both Man and Boy in their respective ‘version’ of events, it stunts the escalation of the situation.
That is not to say it cannot be done, as Patterson references David Mamet’s iconic piece Oleanna in his writer’s note. However, Mamet takes a lot of big swings in his controversial play, going to the limits of how every action could be interpreted by each character. In comparison, Patterson plays it too safe and fails to deliver much beyond ‘Did he mean it like that?’. If this case leaves the audience guessing, it wouldn’t stand a chance in court.
Innocence is a theatrically engaging, well-executed production dealing with an under-represented topic, and for that it certainly deserves praise. For any audience members close to the subject matter, however, Patterson’s reluctance to dig deep could be a frustrating watch. Also, playing Michael Jackson as the exit music for a production about grooming might not be the best way to encourage serious conversation.
Runs until 13 November 2021