Shrewsbury School

'Monsters' - review

Friday 31 January 2020

A review by Director of Drama Dr Helen Brown of a powerful, thought-provoking, disturbing and deeply moving directorial debut by Sixth Formers Ed Tarling and Phoebe Stratton-Morris.

The murder of Jamie Bulger remains one of the most troubling events in recent memory. In 1993, the toddler was abducted from a shopping centre by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged ten. Thompson and Venables tortured and murdered the little boy, whose body was found on railway tracks two days later. The nation was appalled. How could children do something so horrific? Could a child be born evil? Who was to blame?

Niklas Radstrom’s play, based in large part on verbatim material from the trial, attempts to answer some of those questions. The audience, seated in-the-round in the claustrophobic surroundings of Drama Studio 2, are cast as the 38 adults who saw Jamie and his killers on the way to his death, but who did nothing to intervene. It is challenging – and at times distressing – to watch; it makes us question our responsibilities as a society as well as the role of theatre within that society. With its emotive name and subject matter, Monsters might seem to be simply fuelling the tabloid hysteria that surrounds cases such as Bulger's death. How do you turn a crime like that into art without being accused of feeding off other people's pain and misery?

Radstrom is insistent that the play is not trying to upset people: “The intention is always to create a space for dialogue. When the play was performed in Scandinavia, audiences didn't want to leave. They wanted to talk, because the play had given them permission to think about what happened, and why and what they might be able to do about it. In the end, only one thing could have stopped Bulger's murder - a single adult saying to those boys, 'Hey, what are you doing?' Nobody did.”

Tom Daly (PH) and Oscar Niblett (Ch) deliver moving performances as the two boys, sometimes sullen and defensive and sometimes heartbreakingly naïve: amid a harrowing description of the crime, Robert’s question, "Did they take him to hospital to bring him back to life?" is a jarring reminder of his youth.

The interrogation is led by two police inspectors, played by theatrical veteran Orlando Williams (Rt) and newcomer Joe Meisner (SH). As they slowly unpick the events leading to Jamie’s death, their professional detachment starts to crumble: how can one remain aloof from the horror of ‘children killing children’?

Lucy Lees, Annie Stocker and Phoebe Stratton-Morris (EDH) play the boys’ mothers, each struggling to come to terms with the loss of a child. The mothers of the murderers and the murdered echo each other’s pain: how can a mother stop loving her own child, even when the child isn’t there anymore? All three performances are astonishingly powerful, demonstrating a maturity and sensitivity beyond the actors’ years. Their refrain, “My love is there even when it isn’t needed,” has the ring of simple truth.

The audience’s complex emotions are articulated throughout by the chorus of onlookers, made up of Imogen Jones (MSH), Imogen Morgan (G), Olivia Barnes (EDH) and Ed Tarling (R). Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, they occupy a liminal space between the actors and the audience, challenging us to question our role as spectators who do not intervene: “I don't know what you expect to experience, now that you've come to the theatre to see two children killing a third. So you want to upset yourself with an experience that is frightening? Disturbing? Moving? Educational? Do you think it is useful to watch the enactment of two children killing a third? Do you think you can tell your friends, ‘Last week, I went to the theatre and saw two children killing a third?’”

This is a play that asks questions, many of which are unanswerable. It was a brave choice by first-time student directors Ed Tarling and Phoebe Stratton-Morris, and has provided the School with one of its most thought-provoking nights at the theatre.

Dr Helen Brown
Director of Drama

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