Monsters, by Niklas Rådström, deals with the 1993 killing of toddler James Bulger by eleven-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The script veers between self-righteous harangue, and the disingenuous blurring of fiction and reportage. Most of Monsters’ dramatic force derives from co-opting Venables’s confession, a verbatim text that, in describing Bulger’s slow death, would horrify whether read by cast, lawyer, or android. This sickening account made me want to leave the theatre, but this is no tribute to Rådström. His own writing is mainly overwrought posturing: avant-garde theatre at its exploitative, sensationalist worst.
Monsters opens with a choric harangue of audience by actors. They don’t know why we’re here. They don’t know what we expect. They don’t know what we want from a play about children killing a child. Do we think it’s useful? DO WE? Once the cast have stopped criticising the audience for having the temerity to turn up, Monsters consists mainly of quotations from Venables and Thompson’s interrogations, interrupted by further choric hand-wringing and hectoring.
Director Matthew Goldhill’s cast are four good actors doomed by a dreadful script. Standout moments include Fen Greatley’s childlike demeanour as Thompson under interrogation. Chloe Orrock is memorable as Thompson’s mother, describing his childhood: her understated delivery somewhat tempers Rådström’s melodrama. All four could excel in a better play. Throughout, Monsters fails to fully engage with the specificities of regionality and abusive poverty that surrounded Bulger’s killing. Murder happens everywhere, but by ignoring the details of location, cyclical abuse and social deprivation, Rådström’s text – heavy on handwringing, low on characterisation – does not universalise what happened on Merseyside. Instead, attention is refocused away from the murder, back to the four performers. Too often the consequence is the spectacle of bright young things in a state of unfocused indignation about a death they were barely born for; privilege theorising its unimaginable reverse.
The temptation is to turn the play’s questions – is seeing Monsters useful? Moving? Educational? – back on performers, director, and ultimately on Rådström. Why is anyone there? To help thesps feel angry? To let audiences look sombre? Underpinning Monsters are two insulting and reductive suppositions: first, that nobody has attempted to think deeply about the murder before, and, second, that we share complicity in Bulger’s death. The first is laughable; the second dangerous. There are ways not to be complicit: voicing our suspicions and be prepared to risk our own safety in defence of a child’s. Monsters does not reflect this, preferring its dubious mission of blame and mimetic outrage.
Like the press coverage of which Denise Bulger complained, Monsters withholds James Bulger’s real name until its closing moments. Everything – injuries, indignation, avant-garde posturing and vague sympathy for the killers – is made more important than the personhood of that little boy. Ultimately, Monsters is guilty of the fetishisation and exploitation of which it accuses its audience.
Monsters’ cast were born at about the same time as James Bulger. He deserves a better memorial than that afforded by Rådström’s play.
A version of this article originally appeared at Oxford Theatre Review.com