Writer: Sam Potter
Director: James Farrell
Reviewer: Harry Stern
Those of us who lived through the national hysteria that surrounded the murder of James Bulger are not unfamiliar with the horror of the idea of children killing other children. The senseless, callous murder of the Liverpool toddler by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was as incomprehensible as it was chilling. How can such relative innocents perpetrate such a hideous act on one even more innocent than themselves? It is a question that remains hanging even after all this time. It is the same question that was left unanswered after Mary Bell killed two small boys when she herself was only ten.
The subject has fascinated Sam Potter for some time. While he hasn’t answered the question in this short play, it is clear that he has probed his subject deeply and the piece has an air of profound reflection that underpins the impact of the short, sharp scenes that follow one after the other in quick fire succession. The unnerving nature of the action is exacerbated, as the history of the act of murder and the memory and actions of its perpetrator seem to change as the play develops.
A child may commit an ‘adult’ crime but that child, it seems, remains a child who will, almost involuntarily, change its story to shift the spotlight and the blame even in these most extreme circumstances. It is at one and the same time a perception deepening and thoroughly confusing process. The rationale or explanation for these behaviours are, by their very nature, opaque and thus evade those who would explain them. Potter’s play reflects this by being strong on narrative while being short on thesis. This is not a dramatic fault. Certainly, for those who would lock them up and throw away the key the play succeeds in introducing doubt about what actually happened, as was the case with the true life Bell murders, thus defying coherent analysis.
For a play that deals with such a serious subject, it has moments of genuine humour, especially at the beginning and is a well-crafted and very thoughtful piece of work. If the final scene between Margaret, the killer, and her psychiatrist seems overlong it is probably because there is such economy of writing in the rest of the script. Structurally, too, it is satisfying with revelation being allowed to dawn rather than being thrust down the audience’s throat.
In his quest to explore the psyche of such a juvenile killer Potter is aided and abetted by a magnetic central performance from Sonya Cassidy. Throughout the development of the seventy-minute piece the characterisation deepens as the narrative unfolds. The transformation of seemingly irresponsible teenage girl on the look out for fun and frolics to a massively damaged child murderer is hugely persuasive and adroitly handled. She exudes a simplistic charm that elicits the audience’s sympathy at the start. That she manages to retain that sympathy after the detail of what she has actually done is revealed is testament to the actor’s hypnotic watchability. Even when she re-enacts the wooing of her potential victim, you never hate her. Cassidy’s Mae/Margaret is monstrous, magnificent creation.
The rest of the cast provides strong support with a particularly skilled interpretation of ten-year-old naivety by Serena Manteghi as the victim Paige. Rob Whitcomb contributes a finely judged Derek, a characterisation of a Norfolk boy to treasure. James Farrell’s direction never lets the pace slacken, except, crucially, at the end. The design elements of Nik Corrall’s plastic sheeting strewn set and Anna Sbokou and Sarah Crocker’s institutionally sterile lighting contribute to the intensity of the piece.