Bryony Lavery’s 1998 drama presents us with three people frozen by trauma: a child killer; the mother of the girl he abducted, abused and murdered; and a psychologist probing the mysteries of the criminal mind. The first act is presented in monologues – shards of narrative, isolated, often anguished. Only in the second do the characters encounter one another, with two decades having passed and the future to be confronted and negotiated. The play is a chamber piece, and in this diffuse production by Jonathan Munby, it often lacks focus and intensity, despite a trio of fine performances. Suranne Jones is the box-office draw as the mother, Nancy. But it is Jason Watkins as the killer, Ralph, who gives this particular staging its greatest fascination. He is disturbing and horribly plausible – a predator who is himself a damaged child in a flabby, unremarkable middle-aged body, repulsive and pitiable, and utterly riveting.
On a set in which icy glass shards are suspended, flickering with images of brain scans or lost children’s faces, Jones, bony, angular, her eyes sunken and haunted, recounts how her daughter Rhona left, like Little Red Riding Hood, on a visit to grandma, and never returned. We see her mourning in her child’s bedroom, desperately drawing comfort from the child’s possessions, and pouring her energies into an action group. And as information drips through, she is ravaged by the realisation that the shed where Rhona was imprisoned is little more than a few short steps away from her home. Watkins, meanwhile, discusses his grisly modus operandi with a weird kind of geekish pride – the efficiency of snatching his quarry from the street, the gloating care with which he preserves his collection of child pornography. He’s even convinced he has a certain appeal to his victims: “I think she liked me,” he brags, in a thick, wet-lipped Birmingham accent. “She was interested.”
As the psychologist Agnetha, Nina Sosanya must tackle the least rewarding, and least convincing of the roles. That the character is part Icelandic feels schematically on-the-nose. Lavery equips her with a bundle of neurotic tics as well as a cool assurance on the academic podium, where she lectures on the notion that violent criminality might be caused by changes in the brain caused by the suffering of abuse. Yet she never feels fully achieved, and her own grief and guilt over an affair with a married colleague who has since died isn’t properly explored – rather, it seems included to create a neater sense of symmetry.
Still, the play exerts its own contained, ferocious fascination, and the strongest scenes are gnawingly disturbing. Perhaps the best sees Jones’ Nancy confront Watkins' cowed, defiant Ralph in prison. She shows him family photographs and gently declares that she forgives him, but it’s pulse-quickeningly clear that the interview is a subtle form of torture for the killer, trapped in the prison of his own warped psychology as well as in his cell – and that Nancy knows it. There’s a nauseating moment, too, when he asks her the age of her other daughter, and his face floods with disappointment when he hears that she’s not a child – and therefore a potential victim for his perverted fantasies – but a grown woman in her 30s. This is a thoughtful, compassionate and deeply uncomfortable drama. And if it’s not quite at its most potent and concentrated here, it’s still darkly absorbing.