SIN OR SYMPTOM? A HUMAN TURNED TO A HORROR
Last time I encountered a monologue written for a paedophile abuser, it was by Alan Bennett in a remarkable – and I think unrepeated – TV Talking Heads . That was a brave and haunting performance by David Haig as a tempted, succumbing, park-keeper with an edge of virtuous prissiness about other people’s behaviour. Braver still, because ineffably nastier, but with that same edge of prissiness we have here Jason Watkins’ rendering of “Ralph”. Bryony Lavery’s multiply disturbing play is about a mother’s experience when her 10 year old daughter has been first missing, then confirmed dead ,dismembered and stored in a lock-up shed by a man with a stash of “Lesbian Lolitas” videos who is capable of saying petulantly to a psychiatrist “The only thing I”m sorry about is that it’s not legal. Killing girls”. He got seven of them, over 21 years .
There are three stunning performances – Jason Watkins’ knock-kneed, lame- footed, hunchedly amiable and incurable selfpitying killer shows off his tattoos and brags about his gift for organisation. Suranne Jones is the dead child’s mother, assuredly moving between mundane Midlands practicality beneath her fine ironic eyebrows and the deepest, angriest of griefs before reaching a strange resolution. And you believe in every step. The third, the wild card, is Nina Sosanya as an American-Icelandic psychologist , KCL lecturer and author of a paper entitled “Serial killing – a forgivable act?” She is of the school that considers atrocities as symptoms, not sins.
Which took Lavery – early on the curve – into the now-modish dramatic territory of neuroscience and theories about frontal lobe deficiencies, early influence on empathetic connection, bangs on the head leading to irresistible criminal impulses, etc. It all feels very up to date, though the play first aired over a decade ago. Additional dramatic interest – and a bit of artful internal sabotage – is added because the psychiatrist is a bit of a horror herself. Our first glimpses of Sosanya, in the sequence craftsmanlike initial monologues, shows the learned scientist having the screaming abdabs over leaving New York, then sitting on a plane writing vengeful messages to her illicit lover and research colleague while necking brandy, insulting the stewardess and greeting the seat-belt sign with a shriek of “We’re all going to die” .Nor are her “boundaries” in a series or prison interviews with Ralph very convincingly set, given that her own self -pity and self-importance are almost as marked as his.
But maybe that’s the point: certainly in the electric, even more uncomfortable second act when against the bossy shrink’s recommendation the mother confronts the killer in a restorative-justice meeting. Rapidly (God, Suranne Jones is good, and Watkins a brave actor!) she reaches more important depths than the expert ever did. Lavery is never a simplistic writer, so I hope she will forgive a certain bracing conclusion which any of us may make as we shiver in the stalls: that when it comes to understanding the depth, strangeness, redeemability and motivation of human beings you will get more insight from a tough ordinary mother with life-experience than from any self-regarding American psychiatrist who calls herself a “voyager in the frozen wastes of the criminal mind.”
You could also reflect that forgiveness is the best revenge. It certainly turns out that way in the agonizing final scenes. It’s a terrific play, actually. And on a frozen snow-day on the Haymarket, I should record that instinctively most of a middling-thin matinee audience rose to its feet to applaud the three principals. Oh, and turning up late post-holiday, I bought my own stalls ticket and don’t regret it for a moment.
box office 020 7930 8800 to 5 May