"Revival Of A Psychological Thriller"
by Paul Ackroyd for remotegoat on 18/03/17

The Bad Seed was adapted for the stage by Maxwell Anderson in 1954 and enjoyed a long run on Broadway in the mid-1950s. It was subsequently made into an Academy Award nominated film in 1956 and remade as a television movie in 1985. With such a pedigree, it seems rather churlish to record that I found the current revival by Outfox productions, currently playing at the Brockley Jack, disappointingly lacking in suspense.

The plot concerns an idyllic American family, the Penmarks, whose charming, intelligent daughter is gradually revealed to display worrying behavioural trends, indicative of a serious personality disorder. One of the problems I suspect for a modern audience is that we now know much more about sociopathic conditions than was known in the 1950s and audiences are now much more familiar with the genre of the psychological thriller. It is scarcely possible to turn on the television without stumbling upon versions of the genre which are more sophisticated than this early example.

The part of the young girl Rhoda is played by Rebecca Rayne, who, although she had gone to great lengths to make herself appear as young as possible and appeared quite sweet with her round shining face and pigtails, was clearly far more mature than the eight-year-old character required in the script. Had this part been played by a genuinely pre-pubescent child then her behaviour would have been much more chilling and effective. It would also have increased the age difference between her and her mother Christine, played by Beth Eyre. The part of the mother is really the pivotal part in the play as she gradually uncovers the truth of her daughter's behaviour, and attempts to deal with it while wrestling demons of her own. The strongest performances were by Brian Merry as Leroy, the disturbed maintenance man, who alone amongst the adults recognises the sinister undertones in Rhoda's behaviour, and Jessica Hawksley as Monica, the overbearing and intrusive landlady who right up until the end refuses to recognise that reality.

The setting of the play is the living room of the Penmark's apartment. This is simply depicted in the Brockley Jack studio theatre by a settee and two comfortable chairs against a background of an opaque window, with the audience on three sides. I have attended many plays at Brockley Jack and have marvelled how that limited performance space has been adapted to fit the needs of the highly varied theatrical productions staged. This was one production, however, where I felt the staging did not really work. This is a play with several scenes, and many entrances and exits by the cast. Several points in the action require conversations to be overheard or part heard, but the layout of the set and the position of the three entrances used made it difficult for this to be done effectively. It would, for example, have helped in building up the tension if Leroy had been able to overhear more of the family's conversation but the set did not allow him to be partly obscured.

The cast did their best to develop the suspense, and the action did not drag but the style of the play fell uncomfortably between melodrama and naturalism, and in the end felt laboured. This is an interesting revival of a play which clearly made its mark and reflected then current theories in the development of personality, but in spite of an unexpected twist at the end of the play this is not Hitchcock.

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