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Shining Darkly: Mucky Kid at Theatre503

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated the full review here.

Richly tragic viewing, Mucky Kid uses the tale of an escaped convict to explore themes about child protection, abuse, mental illness, coming of age and fear of the unforgivable impulses within. At Theatre 503.

Like a pop-up diorama this thoughtful début play by Sam Potter packs a lot of depth into a small package, using carefully arranged perspective to bring the story to light. Through fragments, re-tellings and many piecings together, a series of similar but divergent narratives emerges as the play unfolds. It’s impossible to tell what the truth is, whether the mind at the centre of the play is deliberately manipulating the facts or experiencing each distinct narrative as a memory, each equally valid and vying to be the truth.

The emotional core of the play is a young woman – infamous child murderer Maggie Radclyffe – who has spent over half her life in prison.  She escapes with her friend Naomi and we first see them dancing gleefully in a field trying to figure out what to do next. As the 36 hours of Maggie’s escape progresses it becomes poignantly clear that her adolescence has been far from ordinary: she has never been drunk, never gone to a nightclub, never dyed her hair a regrettable colour. And many other nevers that she is suddenly exposed to, some more sinister that others.

Replaying altered versions of the same scenes allows space to explore each possible emotional outcome. In some versions Maggie (Sonya Cassidy) is bubbly and erratic with an unnerving laugh, in others tender and shy as a new world opens to her, and in others still,  foul-mouthed and violent. There is one moment of such terrifying intensity when Maggie is alone on stage, remembering an attempt to lure a young child to play with her, that I couldn’t bear to look at Cassidy’s face. Her transitions through this range of emotions and paces is stunning; the performance is crisp and what could be very confusing without full commitment to each change in tone works perfectly.

The whole cast is strong. In addition to their roles as Maggie’s friend Naomi and the two country boys they hitch a ride with after escaping, Pamela Dwyer, Adam Loxley and Rob Witcomb take turns portraying the prison warden and the psychologist who interview Maggie after her return. In each iteration these scenes have a different yet equally powerful emotional resonance. Dwyer’s performance as Maggie’s abusive, emotionally manipulative mother adds a great deal to our sympathy for Maggie. For much of the show Paige (Serena Manteghi) roams the stage as a silent portent of a disturbing episode in Maggie’s escape. Her role when at last she does speak suddenly calls into question every version of the narrative – and the Maggie – we’ve seen.

The clear plastic set designed by Nik Corrall chimes with the fragmentary nature of the narrative: behind it is a space to be seen and not heard, adding new layers of meaning to what is happening in the central box. The props all hang in a line along the back wall, shards of the narrative discarded as the show progresses. Sound, music and lighting by Dan Jeffries, Anna Sboku and Sarah Crocker provide an optimum level of creepiness at all the right moments.

Potter’s script is concerned just as much with the public perception of and rhetoric around child killers as it is with the psyche of the main character. Judgment of Maggie’s crime comes from many directions: from the world of politics to news commentators, and from the personal to the reactions of others during her escape. And of course, the psychological burden runs through all of this – the one shackle she can’t escape. In that sense Mucky Kid raises an issue that is universal: we all have dark corners of the soul into which we would prefer that others don’t pry and indeed, places that we’d rather not go ourselves. Most of us have the mercy of obscurity and the great grinding of time to help us forget. But some people are subject to a single defining event or thought forever.

The question hovering above all is whether it is possible for someone who has committed such a dreadful crime (and who has had such dreadful crimes committed to them) to achieve redemption, and by whose standards that should be measured. I think the answer of Mucky Kid is not a no, but neither is it a robust yes. In any case, this is a powerful, engaging production that is definitely worth watching.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 16 November 2013.