Monday, 20 March 2017

REVIEW: The Bad Seed at the Jack Studio Theatre

Why does one revive a play? I’ve attended quite a few revivals in the past months, with Hedda Gabler or Buried Child. The former is revived every year, it seems, with a new female actress taking on the classic role each time. When it comes to the former, or The Bad Seed currently running at the Brockley Jack Theatre, a few more years go by before we see them again. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they are more recent American Pulitzer Prize winning plays, or because they are so distinctively from a certain decade in the last century.

In any case, to me, what makes a revival stand out is when a director turns its words into something contemporary, or at least steers clear from a naturalistic stage setting.

Let me begin by saying that I had a very good time watching The Bad Seed production directed by John Fricker, but facing its classic staging and literal 50s direction, something in me kept asking, why was it so naturalistic? Why wasn’t new sauce thrown into the mix?

Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed, which opened on Broadway in 1954, is the story of Christine, a comfortable housewife with a lovely husband, Kenneth, and an eight-year-old daughter, Rhoda. One day, after Rhoda comes back from a school trip early, we learn that another child in her school, Claude, drowned. Rhoda does not seem concerned by this event at all, and we soon find out that she was the one who hurt and drowned the boy. As the story moves on, Christine keeps defending her daughter all the while worrying about what damage the girl could do next. 

The text by Anderson is exquisite, giving an easy rhythm to this language spoken in Southern US accents by the actors. The lengthy conversations on Freud and the psychology of murderers between Christine and her neighbours are given a lightness and the audience truly hangs on every word. 

The stage design by Mary Sankey is neat and precise. We are close to the action in this small space, and are truly transported. If I may be a little picky, I would say that details play an important role when the audience is so close, and unfortunately, I noticed right away that the “tonic water” wasn’t fizzy, when so many other details had been taken care of so minutely, from the costumes to the structure of the living room where the action was set. Furthermore, as a fire erupted in the garden shed towards the end of the play, there was no particular change of lighting to see through the window. This being said, the design brought out the hominess and apparent safety of being inside the warm house while the danger was actually roaming around. 

The cast was very good. Rebecca Rayne as the young Rhoda shocked me as it
became clear how manipulative she was. She succeeded in bringing out a child’s qualities and in insisting on her character’s charm. Beth Eyre was excellent as a nervous and insecure mother who ends up giving up on herself. Lucinda French, as the mother of the diseased child, stole the show whenever she appeared thanks to the balance in her character’s drunkenness and despair. Brian Merry was also intriguing and scary as the gardener Leroy. There was definitely a fascination for Rhoda and when he told her he knew she was responsible for Claude’s death, the dynamic between the two was fascinating and dangerous. Jessica Hawksley as the landlord Mrs Breedlove brought warmness and laughter to the house. The casting was on point for each character, creating a strong ensemble.

Of course, the text is what it is, and I haven’t read it in text form, but I wonder if more risk could have been taken in this production. The long conversations between Christine’s friends mention guns, technology advancement as well as homosexuality. The relationship between Rhoda and Leroy is definitely a strange one. The topic of a young girl being a sort of sweet bully reminded me of today’s online bullying we hear a lot about. The play is of course in the 1950s, but could the text have been slightly tweaked to bring up these topics? 

Despite me wanting it to be slightly riskier, this was an expertly directed production, with the cast speaking this classic American text beautifully, creating real tension until the final minute of the show.

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

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