I guess we all have our mad moments. But the seemingly “ordinary” characters in Jack Thorne’s two short plays suggest a more disturbing world where psychotic behaviour and everyday normality have somehow gone hand in hand from childhood. In Fanny and Faggot, which has already been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Finborough theatre (with most of the current West End cast), Thorne invites us to share mad moments in the life of Mary Bell, who infamously strangled two young boys when she was just ten years old and was given an indeterminate prison sentence, which ended with her release in 1980.
Structurally, this is a play that teases the audience too much, especially in the slightly puzzling first section where you’re never quite sure if troubled Mary is in a children’s prison wing playing hop-scotch and girly games with her friend Norma, or if she’s facing trial at court or living at home with her prostitute mum. The second half is a less fuzzy (and funnier) snapshot of Mary ten years later when she’s absconded to Blackpool with an inmate called Lucy and hauled a couple of young soldiers back to a seedy hotel room.
It’s here that you see how Mary’s molested childhood is still rooted inside. Earlier, we’ve heard her tell Norma, “my mum was a prozzie and men liked me to watch”, as if it was a perfectly normal part of family life. But now, while Lucy has fun romping under the sheets with her soldier boy and happily throws her knickers and tights in the air (landing in the front row of the tiny Trafalgar Studio), the adult Mary is about as sexually mature as a stick of Blackpool rock. She’s still watching, emotionally frozen and unable to do anything more than hold hands with her gawky squaddie admirer.
Director Stephen Keyworth’s cast, especially Elicia Daly as Mary and Sophie Fletcher as Norma, give totally convincing performances. Still, a nagging doubt remains: does this play go deep enough? But then the real story of Mary Bell’s childhood probably includes more mad moments than any playwright could ever imagine.
Building on the promise of Fanny and Faggot, Thorne is on much stronger territory with Stacy, originally presented at the Arcola Theatre in February. Ralf Little delivers this intense 60-minute monologue as if his entire life depended on it, giving a genuinely affecting portrayal of a tortured young man called Robert, a call centre assistant from Croydon who is so bland that you wouldn’t give him a passing glance if he sat next to you on the local tram, but who is in fact a slightly creepy mess of contradictions and is rapidly driving himself insane as a result of his own sexual stupidity.
“I don’t make many girls gasp,” Robert quips nervously before describing in pornographic detail how he ended up having what seems like a hurried fumble with his best friend Stacy, followed the next day by a shag-a-thon with her best friend Shona, but then can’t cope with the emotional fall-out. The steamy male sex-talk hits all the right dramatic G-spots and Little has a flair for mixing subtle weirdness and deadpan comedy. But again Thorne’s script either doesn’t dig deep enough or raises too many questions. For example, are we meant to see some murderous significance in Robert’s childhood memory of his ham-fisted dad battering a dying dog to death in the street outside the family home?
Hamish Pirie’s direction relies on some fairly random back projections of the dead dog, Stacy, Shona, Robert’s family and what Robert and Stacy got up to in bed in full-frontal close-up, leaving very little room for the imagination. But Little presents Robert’s malfunctioning relationships with enough edgy male angst to keep you blushing, eventually tipping the lad into a psychotic black hole of his own making. In the end though, I wasn’t sure if Robert’s X-rated adventures in Croydon had me gripped or groped, theatrically speaking of course. Well, we all have our mad moments.
- Roger Foss