Has Bruce Norris bitten off more than he can chew?

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

Bruce Norris is a firefighter among dramatists. He runs towards danger while others sprint in the other direction. His Pulitzer-winning hit Clybourne Park studied ethnic bigotry among American yuppies and it culminated in a gruesomely funny scene in which smug liberals exchange racist jokes in public. The play was morally complex, dramatically satisfying and an absolute hoot to watch.

His new show, Downstate, co-commissioned by the NT and Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, takes on a far crunchier topic than racism. Child sex abuse. We’re in a residential home occupied by a quartet of tagged offenders monitored by a sharp-tongued probation officer. We meet the molesters. Fred was once a music teacher who thought it was OK to seduce the boys perched on his piano stool. Dee is an elderly queen whose underage victim died of Aids. Gio, a swaggering young buck, claims to have had consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl who showed him an adult’s ID card. Finally we’re introduced to sad Felix who tells everyone he still loves the daughter he violated. ‘Yeah, and my husband loves his golden retriever,’ drawls the probation officer, ‘but he doesn’t put his dick in its mouth.’ That gag, by the way, got no laughs at all but Norris deserves marks for trying to harvest comedy from this barren terrain.

He portrays the sex pests as remarkably erudite. The music teacher delivers lectures in the technicalities of Chopin, and his fellow-rapists bandy quotes from the Old Testament and François Villon. This sophisticated window-dressing is doubtless intended to keep snobs like me interested but it doesn’t ring entirely true. The play, at its best, throws up useful discussion points. Norris challenges the assumption — heavily promoted by the therapy industry — that rape is the worst experience a child can endure. Surely cancer, blindness, a broken neck, or the loss of a parent would be tougher. And Norris shrewdly examines the rapists’ lack of remorse and their belief that all sexual conduct is excusable because ‘love’ is a universal virtue.

But although these issues are aired, they aren’t incarnated on stage or channelled through the dramatic evolution of a character. The play needs a sharper, tighter focus. Norris himself would probably admit he’s bitten off more rapists than he can chew. He spends nearly an hour introducing them all in a poorly structured first act whose sluggish pace drove some play-goers away at the interval. The climax includes a surprise death that’s as predictable as church bells at Easter.

I enjoyed this play. It provides excellent debating matter for jurists and politicians. As drama it has its moments. But as a fun night out it’s a flop. No commercial producer would have backed this production. The script needs work and the company lacks a big name to boost the box-office. Those two faults should have been addressed before a play with such a toxic theme was ever mounted. I’m glad the show exists but it could have been done better.

The Life I Lead is a monologue about the light comedian David Tomlinson, who played Mr Banks in Mary Poppins. Tomlinson was already a West End star when Walt Disney came knocking. An emissary arrived at his dressing-room door and invited Tomlinson to dine with Disney at the Dorchester provided he could guarantee that he wasn’t a communist. ‘I eat anything,’ he said. He was close to Julie Andrews and he adored her angelic presence on screen. ‘As if she wouldn’t leave a footprint in the snow.’ Homesick in Hollywood, they had a Sunday roast together every week. She cooked. He ate.

Tomlinson’s family background had been distinctly weird. His remote but gentlemanly father insisted on being addressed as ‘CST’ by his children. ‘Father’ was too intimate. The old man had a fixation with Napoleon and he analysed every problem in life by making comparisons with strategic decisions taken at Austerlitz and Borodino. Tomlinson later discovered that his dad had been a bigamist whose hush-hush second family featured seven nippers.

The writer James Kettle has produced a knockout script full of laughs, some borrowed, some new. ‘David Tomlinson’, according to Noël Coward, ‘looks like a very old baby.’ Tomlinson muses that the 1950s began well and then went on for ages, ‘like one of Peter Ustinov’s anecdotes’. Walt Disney, he tells us, personally oversaw the filming of Mary Poppins and altered the flavour of scenes as they were being shot. ‘I love what you’re doing,’ Disney would declare — invariably a sign that Tomlinson had gone astray.

Miles Jupp’s effortless character study shows traces of enormous care. The antique accent, for example, is perfectly replicated. The quantity Jupp gives to the first vowel of ‘audience’ is exquisite. Not quite ‘oar,’ not quite ‘are’, and shorter than either. A brilliant piece of phonetic engineering.

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