At first glance, the notion of going to see a play about paedophilia (0r even reading a review about one) doesn't sound all that appealing. But Future Me is not only a brave and bold bit of theatre, looking with clear sighted vision at the people who perpetrate this appalling crime, but it is also at times very funny, although, inevitably the humour has the darkest of edges.
The play focusses around Peter, a young lawyer, who at the beginning is about to settle down with his pretty girlfriend, Jenny. Their lives, and that of Peter's brother, Mike (and a father we never see) are turned upside down when "an offensive picture" is accidentally emailed to everyone on Peter's email list. He claims at first, that it's a virus, turning to Mike, a computer expert to help wipe the hard drive. But Mike knows of no virus that would do such a thing, and Peter is sent to jail.
The setting of Future Me is intimate (we sat right at the front, practically in the set), and the scene in which Peter was incarcerated, felt deeply symbolic, as he strips out of his civvies and into a drab prison tracksuit, while the other actors, fixed windows in the metal frames of the set with an ominous clang.
To begin with it seems impossible, for someone like Peter to have committed this crime. Here is a young man, a lawyer, with everything to live for. Not our usual picture of a paedophile. Surely it must be a mistake? But it is no mistake, and as the play unfolds, we are asked uncomfortable questions about the nature of forbidden desire, and about how we deal with the people who succumb to it. We are forced to look at paedophiles, not as monsters - as the media so frequently portray them - but as human beings, who have a sad bad addiction.
Human beings like Harry. A pathetic individual who befriends Peter - someone Peter wouldn't have given the time of day to in his normal life. Someone who is learning to play the guitar badly, who is desperate not end his days in prison, who wants to get out and "fight the good fight" as he calls it, someone who seems so utterly harmless, until you realise he has abused his stepdaughter. It becomes almost impossible at times to reconcile the shambolic often humorous figure of Harry with what he has done. The two don't seem to square up somehow, which is perhaps the point. It is neat and tidy and keeps dark thoughts at bay to imagine paedophiles as some kind of deviant monsters - but what if, they're just like you and me? What does that make us?
Which is the kind of argument that Tim, another inmate would use. Tim is possibly one of the most chilling and menacing characters I've ever seen on stage. He uses words to justify his actions, claiming a conspiracy against people like him, pointing out that"Half the bloody population have sex before their sixteen", in arguments so persuasive, you almost fall for them. In fact, thinking about this play over the weekend as I have been (it is the kind of play that stays for a long time in your head), it occurs to me that Tim's railing against the "programme" that the inmates are required to undergo if they stand a chance of parole, would look like an abuse of their human rights if, say a similar programme was used to deradicalise Muslim clerics. It is an uncomfortable truth that where in one situation we might cry foul, in another we would be more likely to turn a blind eye.
Future Me is a bold and brave and often shocking piece of theatre. Rupert Hill's Peter is persuasive and likeable. The moment when he says in prison "For the first time it felt it was real", you realise that here is someone, still in huge denial about what they've done. Even after all the therapy, done under the unblinking eyes of the therapist, Ellen (played by Katherine Dow Blyton) you get the sense Peter hasn't really faced up to it.
It is only when confronted by his ex girlfriend Jenny, when he's out of jail, and he finally describes to her what he's done in detail, how he started to go online and: "It was like you'd been released in the middle of the night into this enormous empty library and you can run up and down the corridors, and you know somewhere in that library, somewhere are books that offer exactly what you want.", how slowly over time, the search becomes wider, incorporating things he knows aren't strictly legal, until the day dawns that he realises he's crossed a line, but it was one he crossed long ago. Up until this point, even though I knew that Peter had raped a 12 year old girl, the power of this play had somehow kept me in sympathy with him, but when describes it to Jenny, how he ceases to see her at all, you suddenly feel the full horror of what he's done.
There is a similar moment with Harry, who after reencountering his stepdaughter, and finally understanding the damage he's done to her, tries to castrate himself. Like I say, this play leaves you under no illusions about what these men do, how appallingly evil their acts are.
Stephen Brown's writing is so good, by the end of it I had swung round again in sympathy for Peter and Harry again - and even to an extent Tim whose violent father had given him no love, so he mistakes the sexual favours of a family friend as tenderness, and this has informed his own skewed nature of what love is.
Peter loses everything: his job, his girlfriend, his family - he meets up briefly with Mike at his father's funeral, and comments on the pictures of his baby girl, but you know that Mike won't allow Peter to meet his family. He is alone with a new career as a copyeditor - a career which requires him to have internet access (symbolically, in the scene where Peter sets up in his new home, it is Tim who hands him the ISDN line) - how on earth, in the absence of any close support is he ever going to resist the temptation?
In the end the person I was least in sympathy with turned out to be Ellen. Her optimistic hope that Harry the "long shot" might just make it while Peter the "good bet" should be fine, seems almost reckless. In a shocking scene with Jenny, she tells her that all she can do is try to make prisoners safer where they are, and she carries on "because it seems like a worthwhile thing to do." But Jenny's response that three years doesn't seem long enough for what has happened to the 12 year old girl, or the revelation that when she's with her new boyfriends she sees herself as a child, leaves us in no doubt of the long term impact on all victims of abuse. In a sense, Jenny is Peter's victim too, because she can never forget what he did.
Future Me offers no solutions to the problem - should we try to rescue paedophiles, and cure them of their addictions? It is as Ellen says, a worthwhile thing to do, and yet, I can't help feeling like Jenny, that maybe the price of the long shot and the safe bet, is just too high, however much sympathy we feel for the perpetrators.
Although I may made this play sound incredibly grim, it isn't - there are some darkly funny moments - Tim makes a joke at the end about doing a talk on Taboos at the ICA, which made me howl with laughter, Harry is often quite humorous, and there were several moments when I laughed out loud. It has a humanity about it which you don't expect to find in material like this. I'm not quite sure I'd go as far as to say I enjoyed it - enjoyment doesn't seem the right word somehow. But this is a compelling, tense play, which will have you on the edge of the seat. I'd thoroughly recommend it.To read Rupert Hill's thoughts on going from playing Jamie Baldwin in Coronation Street to the part of Peter, you can go here