This is a play that does not hold back. No sooner have the lights gone up than we are confronted with a harsh fact from the main character: he was violently raped by a family friend when he was just seven years old. This is a shocking statement to open a play with – partly because of the extremely upsetting nature of child abuse, and partly because it is a subject that is not discussed enough, both inside the theatre and out. We still feel very uncomfortable hearing about it. The play is co-written by David Holthouse, whose real life experiences form the basis of the play. This fact exacerbates the sense of unease – because what we are seeing is not a story, but recent history.
The stage is set in thrust; we are in the middle of the action – and Rachel Stone’s design. The walls with their posters, stickers and trophies effectively recall a young boy’s bedroom; the baseball bats and occasional ominous eye peering out evoke something more sinister. The story is narrated directly to the audience by the character of David. The use of direct address here is powerful. The audience cannot shy away from the story. We are involved in the events that unfold; not simply witnessing them but understanding the impact they have on David. This is important because the point of the play is not simply to raise awareness of the extent of child abuse (1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men in the UK have been sexually assaulted in childhood – in case you were wondering), but to raise awareness of the long-lasting effects of this abuse on the victims and their families, particularly the shame associated with it. This shame is something that we the audience can’t help but become involved in. How do you listen to a story like this and not feel shame? For the fact that we live in a world where this happens so often; and the fact that talking about it is still such a taboo that we almost don’t want to hear about it – thereby compounding the shame of victims.
However, despite the deeply affecting and troubling subject matter, Stalking the Bogeyman is certainly not all doom and gloom. The play is filled with moments of humour, which turn what could be a very dark show into something much more enjoyable. The core narrative is compelling and tension is built well throughout. The fact that we know the outcome from the outset is effective because it prevents the rape and the subsequent planned murder from being plot devices. Though this is a dramatised version of real life events, it is important that Holthouse’s experiences aren’t capitalised on for dramatic effect. This is a real story and it deserves to be told like one.
Holthouse has already told his story via an article several years ago. Initially I wondered why the decision was made to bring this article to the stage (as the play does quite closely resemble the article); however I think the impact of each is very different. The play gives us greater emotional insight into each character and forges a deeper connection with its audience than the article does. Particularly for young people, for whom the article may not resonate as well with, I think the stage version is very important.
Gerard McCarthy leads a strong cast, playing David from the age of seven all the way up to adulthood, changing through the years convincingly. Mike Evans who plays the Bogeyman also makes a journey over time, but his transition in attitude is more significant, whether or not this is real. Each character, including the parents, feels complex and layered – testament to Markus Potter’s direction and passion for telling this story.
The play isn’t perfect. Some moments are handled in a slightly clumsy way and occasionally it feels more like an exercise in personal catharsis and revenge, therefore slightly losing touch with the wider issues of rape and sexual abuse and its many victims. However, it clearly has an enthusiastic team behind it and its merit lies in the fact that it is a play that tackles the issues it raises head on. The subject isn’t pussyfooted around, hinted at or suggested. It is stated plainly and unashamedly. It opens the conversation in an uplifting and powerful way. Its refreshing candour is what makes Stalking the Bogeyman an important piece of theatre.