In February, yet again, innocent people in America were murdered during a normal day at school. A student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, brought a semi-automatic rifle in on Valentine’s Day, and opened fire on his classmates. He killed 17 people, injured 14 more, and caused unimaginable pain to countless others. Ballistic, in an unfortunately timely coincidence, explores the mind of a school shooter. Written by Alex Packer, we follow our protagonist (Mark Conway) from the age of 12, up until his deadly attack. We watch the warning signs present themselves, the stereotypical characteristics that these disturbed boys always seem to possess; a loner, a virgin, casual misogyny, plays violent video games, browses dodgy websites like reddit and 4chan. It is a story we know well, we’ve read it dozens of times in the last decade, so why does it keep happening?

This is a question that Packer, in an essay in the programme, asks us. “What can we do to try and understand it, alter it and stop it?” he writes. But I think most of us could answer that question without needing to sit through an hour-long play about it. Firstly, Ballistic is set in the UK, and while we’ve had the odd incident, school shootings aren’t a downright pandemic here as they are across the pond. Why is that? Gun control. Our teenagers cannot walk into the town centre and buy a gun, nor can they pop to Tesco and buy some bullets. I’d argue other contributing factors such as (and I try to keep my usage of millennial buzzwords to a minimum but this one is entirely appropriate here) ‘toxic masculinity’ is at play, along with good old-fashioned sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.

Conway is engaging as the shooter, beginning at seemingly harmless sexual naiveté and ending at threatening and uncontrollable mania, he’s sharp and funny, but also worrying. Hints of his disrespect for women, and anyone who successfully sexually engages with them like his best friend Alex, are not-so-subtly planted – along with suggestions that he is becoming desensitised to violence and spending a lot of time on the dark web. Packer adds the ingredients, and he stirs it all together, and like a terrible, horrible recipe, out comes the school shooter, perfectly made.

However, the piece does seem continentally confused. The script is packed with British-isms – “freshers”, “uni”, “shag” etc., but also Americanisms – “dude”, “man”, “cops”. There just isn’t room for both. Imagine if you will, that Jay from The Inbetweeners had committed the Columbine massacre. Bizarre, right? Packers’ writing is funny in places and Ballistic, while a little exhausting and hard to watch, is undeniably entertaining. I do admire the desire to want to ignite a conversation about such a topic and to develop understanding, but we in the UK mostly do, which is why these attacks rarely happen here. While provocative and interesting to a degree, it seems to me as though this play is in the wrong country.

Ballistic is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 17 March

Photo: Tom Packer