The Woodsman

Steven Fechter
Against the Grain Theatre Company
Old Red Lion Theatre

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Is this a fence-sit, a tightrope act, or a line drawn in the sand? Does it ask us to choose sides? Steven Fechter's play, inspired the Kevin Bacon film of the same name, now receives its European premiere, surely long overdue.

Richard Ings plays Walter, a gentle and reserved man stringing out his meagre existence in a sparsely-furnished apartment across the road from a grade school. Walter is just out from a 12-year prison sentence for molesting several girls aged 10 to 12. So the school is an issue. But more than that, it is people's assumptions of what the view from his window means - or their doubts or suspicions, and attempts to suppress them - that provide the play's charge.

Walter's therapist Rosen tells him to write a journal of this thoughts. Meanwhile they engage in cat-and-mouse games of question and answer, Rosen refusing either to voice any judgments, reveal his own feelings, or offer any advice. In a way Walter is as frustrated as anybody at society's inability to pin him down. Is he capable of redemption, or (a major theme) normality? What is normality anyway, and who then are the misfits? So he starts to write: not his feelings, but his observations of an unknown man who has started hanging around the school gates.

Casting another villain in the piece knocks our perspective out. On the one hand, Walter knows more than most the psyche of this man - while not exactly empathising or encouraging, he understands. On the other hand this makes him feel a heavy responsibility to do something to prevent it if he can. Twice more the play raises the possibility that a child is being abused, and Walter is compelled to try and stop it. He is written as a man who, despite his past crimes, cannot bear the thought of causing any pain. He also - somewhat child-like himself - genuinely seems to understand children's points of view. We hear a little about his past crimes: in his report two of his victims in fact lied about their ages so as to fall within the desired 10-12 bracket.

This is risky stuff, but it is not the first time that a play has suggested a complexity to the feelings of the child for the abuser. David Harrower's Blackbird has a girl at first attracted to a man who seems to be father figure, romantic hero and confidante combined in a way she hadn't thought possible in an adult. Similarly in The Woodsman, when Walter encounters a girl birdwatching in the woods, he seems at first to be grooming her for his next victim, but in a long, captivating conversation he appears to both resist his urges and become something else to her - a genuine friend.

Ings does Walter's withdrawn quality, and his world-weariness, very well. But a somewhat one-note performance lacks pace, and doesn't quite capture the character's sardonic streak. (He doesn't seem the sort of man to launch into a mock-sports commentary on a paedophile's seduction attempts, as he does at one point.) The production isn't helped either by two lacklustre performances from Mark Philip Compton as his sympathetic (but for the wrong reasons) brother-in-law, and Dominic Coddington as Rosen - too young and nervous for the calmly self-satisfied shrink. But there is outstanding work from the two characters who mainly embody the opposing sides of the debate. Lisa Came as Walter's spunky, sympathetic girlfriend Nikki jump-starts the play when she enters, and keeps it humming throughout. She refuses to be conventionally appalled by him; her face when Walter tells her is a beautifully complex picture of shock, fear and pity. And John Samuel Worsey is great as the bulldog of a cop who harasses Walter, with the help of a few Al Pacino impressions, and calls him the scum that most people would. Again with him we are not sure what to feel.

I loved this clear-sighted, balanced, non-judgmental, no-frills, linear story. It may be called fence-sitting, but this is surely a valid way to acknowledge our ignorance about the complex psychology these cases involve. And after a number of plays (such as 2000 Feet Away last summer) which purport to explore the various sides of the story but can't resist a borderline-hysterical tone, this is fresh cold water. It's seriously thought-provoking, and all the more gripping for its restraint.

Until 2nd May

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury

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