A play with real potential, Distortion could benefit from being a longer production. Being able to make its points in only 30-40 minutes is impressive, but doesn’t leave enough time to satisfactorily conclude events. What happens when the grown-up Alma (Tania Van Amse) finally confronts Danny (Jeannie Dickenson)? What thoughts must be rushing through her head as after 15 years in prison she is once again confronted with her abuser?
Distortion doesn’t lay out the story of Alma and Danny in a logical timeline. Molly Bater’s writing purposefully jumps between fragments in history, encounters between the 9-year old child Alma and her police officer carer Danny. Video interviews of Alma as a grown woman are jumbled up with these seemingly random events; fragments of the past that Alma seems to have intentionally disconnected from each other as a coping mechanism. Even the circumstances in which Danny and Alma first meet are dubious – Danny seems to initially be involved in a case against Alma’s father and takes an unhealthy interest in ensuring that Alma is looked after. Brief glimpses into the past reveal painting, playing with horses and with dolls. Everything seems child-like and innocent to Alma and why wouldn’t it? “At nine you don’t know the truth. You only know what is happening.” muses Alma in her video diary.
Bater’s direction cleverly stages each set of events with children’s toys, music and emotions. Everything that seems so playful and fun carries a sinister undercurrent. Painting becomes a way in which carnal desires are unleashed; the hobby horse and “riding the pony” take on alternative meaning; even the dancing has flashes of evil, as Danny manipulates the red ribbon tied to Alma’s wrists like a puppet on a string.
Actors Van Amse and Dickenson do well to capture the complexity in their characterisation, not an easy thing to do considering that the audience needs to appreciate both the innocent surface and the sinister undertones to each encounter. Van Amse plays the child well, heart on her sleeve and no alternative agenda. Dickenson by contrast is the tormented paedophile and even manages at times to evoke sympathy from the audience. It is abundantly clear that Dickenson struggles with internal conflict – the police office has worked hard at her career and is adamant not to act on the urges generated by her inner ‘beast’, her phoenix of desire that burns so bright with lust and passion that it totally consumes her. Once it burns out however, all that is left is the bitter taste of ash and disgust in her mouth. In mere moments Dickenson is able to convey her inner demons and remind the audience that a paedophile is still a person, constantly struggling to keep herself in check.
Whilst the events of past are effectively conveyed through fragmented memories and differing opinions of events, the ending comes far too abruptly. After a prison sentence, Danny comes face to face with a grown-up Alma. This should be an explosive scene, one where thoughts and feelings come rushing forth in a climactic torrent. Instead it peters out, more of a whimper than a cry. Some additional material is needed to build on the crescendo that this piece generates, and Bater will have a really powerful play on her hands.
Distortion plays at Sweet Waterfront until 15 May 2016 as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. For more information, see Brighton Fringe website.