From ‘The Bad Seed’ to ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, there’s a long and illustrious tradition of stories exploring a mother’s horror at raising a sociopathic, murderous kid. And it’s pretty clear why – the unseen enemy within a family is much scarier than randomised horrors lurking out there in the playground. J C Lee’s tense, tricksy drama is set among an all-American couple whose perfect parenting is called into question after a teacher finds fireworks in their son Luce’s locker.
Mel Giedroyc (of ‘and Sue’ fame) shows talents that go beyond ‘Great British Bake Off’s bun-based innuendo: as Luce’s mother, she faces the endless dual interpretations of her beloved son’s behaviour with wry wit and mounting despair. Is he really planning to blow up the school, or does he have a purely intellectual interest in early twentieth century terrorism?
The sitcommy, punchline-filled tone of the early scenes quickly gives way to hefty debates about the nature of truth, and trust – without much time to start to care about our thinly drawn central character. Luce is left deliberately enigmatic, somewhere between all-American football hero and all-American psychopath. Lee’s text doesn’t quite pick a side, leaving the escape ladder of plausible explanations next to every plunge into deeply weird behaviour. But hopelessly overwrought sound design and clumsy directorial touches combine to make it pretty clear what this production wants you to think.
Lee’s text sharply satirises a school and society that’s incapable of seeing any bad in Luce, as a textbook example of a black, adopted straight-A student. But there’s an irony to the fact that this play’s preoccupation with the scrutiny placed on young black guys ends up forcing us to endlessly scrutinise Luce’s every move, without letting him having a personality and life of his own. Under the microscope, he’s a straightforward ‘bad seed’ – and the moral dilemmas Lee plants are never allowed to take root, and grow.