Mae hasn’t had her name long, but she had a good reason to want to change it. She used to be Maggie Radcliffe, and everyone in the UK knew that name, because when she was ten, Maggie killed a little girl. She’s been in custody since then. Mucky Kid follows a 36-hour escape by Mae from her open prison with her girlfriend Naomi, a stunt which will land her back in high security, and probably add a couple of years to her sentence. But Mae isn’t coming clean about what happened in those few hours on the outside.
At the centre of Mucky Kid is a fantastic performance from Sonya Cassidy, who completely inhabits the constantly capricious, lying and deeply disturbed mind of Mae. She avoids eye contact with her counsellor, flirts, stomps, gurns and cries at a moment’s notice, and we see the replayed fantasies of how she wishes her sojourn might have been. At first this storytelling feels repetitive, until we realise that the repression of ‘the whole truth’ is a highly-developed tactic of Mae’s mind. At one point she inadvertently remembers a minor detail she had repressed from her memory of her childhood crime, and we realise just how much Mae constantly keeps buried.
The play also offers the very believable perspective of a young woman who has never bought a drink, gone to a club, taken drugs or kissed a boy, a very human inroad to contemplation of those young child-killers of the headlines, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson (incidentally the subject of the verbatim piece Monsters by Nicklas Radstrom) and Mary Bell – Sam Potter’s inspiration for this play.
Are we the same person we were when we were ten years old? The name change is the icing on a rich cake of cognitive dissonance: Mae knows she is Maggie Radcliffe, but knows too that she is not – she remembers (incompletely) her crime but cannot understand why she committed it. No wonder she is capable of inventing six or seven accounts of her day of freedom. No wonder she is keen to omit any detail which draws her away from Mae and back toward Maggie.
This is Potter’s debut play and though it takes some time to wind up, it’s a complex and compelling drama. It comes directly after Potter, who has been staff director on many productions at the National Theatre, wrote publicly on The Guardian theatre blog about the under-representation of female playwrights being commissioned and produced on the National’s stages (more comprehensively compiled statistics on this issue here) – this with the NT50 celebrations still ringing in our ears. The boldness of publishing anything about female playwrights/the NT when you have worked there extensively and are about to have your first play go up on a fringe stage aside, Potter’s play is particularly interesting for a related facet of female representation in theatre – in the character list. While representation by proportion is really important (Mucky Kid falls 3f:2m, with an all-white cast), representation through meaningful arcs is also key – the kinds of characters onstage versus the journeys those characters are ‘allowed’ to go on.
Although the play is based on research from the 1968 Mary Bell case, Mae’s gender is largely irrelevant to her journey (it colours it but does not drive it), and despite this her journey and mindset are complex, on the edge of human experience, about the meaning of memory and the permanence of character itself. Too often – disproportionately often – we reach for Prometheus and Adam (OK, I may have watched the NT Live Frankenstein rescreening before writing this) for our colourless everyman protagonists in philosophically complex situations – but Cassidy in the role of Mae gives us regret, pain and madness with bags of specificity and precision which don’t detract from the play’s biggest questions. With personhood and justice at its core, this multi-layered memory play resonates more universally than its blurb suggests.