Thursday 21 March 2019 6:54 pm

Downstate at the National Theatre is a difficult drama that questions how society should treat its worst criminals

A new play about a group of four convicted child sex offenders on supervised release in a social home in Illinois, Downstate is at times a difficult act to stomach.

It’s an exercise in humanising a quartet of sex criminals, an exploration of the complex relationship between an abuser and their victim, and of the blunt tools society and the law use to punish paedophiles and protect local communities. The plot centres on a confrontational visit to the house by the now-adult victim of its most elderly and enfeebled resident, the warm and jolly Fred, whose abject penitence and good nature feels weakly inadequate in the face of the trauma his abuse has caused.

The house’s other three occupants each feel varying degrees of remorse, and while the severity of their crimes vary, they’re all bound by the same rules and restrictions enforced by their visiting parole officer.

Bruce Norris’s America-focused play asks the question of how a retribution-hungry society should treat sex offenders, but struggles to deliver a satisfying answer besides ‘not like how they do it in Illinois’.