By way of backstory, Jessie is a psychopath. At least, she has the genetic predisposition to be one. But psychopaths are personae non gratae in the hauntingly prescient world of James Rushbrooke’s Tomcat, as are children with Down’s syndrome or cystic fibrosis. In short, eugenics has returned. Jessie has been kept under the close scientific observation of her doctor Caroline since she was just three-years-old, ever since her mother – psychopath and genetic outlaw – lost custody of Jessie after the voices in her head persuaded her to stab somebody. Caroline’s study aims to understand and therefore eradicate such anomalous behaviour.
But to err is human. We are all allowed off-days, insists Tom – Jessie’s military-trained but huge-hearted carer – while still falling within the bell curve of “normality”. The question is: at what point does deviation from the norm turn you into a danger to society, or, in Jessie’s case, a psychopath. Rushbrooke – who has a background in social care and a BSc in psychology (and drama) – asks where, or perhaps more importantly how, do you draw the line between behaving badly and being bad, or between acting good and being good. The attempt to map out Jessie’s potentially psychopathic brain raises other tough questions: to what ends will we go for scientific experiment and where should our duty of care stop?
Some answers to these questions are provided by Lily Arnold’s slick, symmetrical set, which is distorted in the funhouse mirrors that bookend the stage. The stretched, amorphous shapes reflected back at the audience are a clever visual subversion of the doctors’ attempt at scientific precision. As you take your seat, accompanied by Richard Hammerton’s melody of tinkling medical beeps, Jessie already lies in wait; the audience flanks her bed. Later, she will refer to the scientists behind the two-way mirror and you will be made to feel responsible for her fate. But for now, we are introduced to Jessie’s flair for drawing and her frustration with the crude wax crayons she is given to draw with. With an effective change in lighting the scene pans out to reveal that Jessie’s room is being watched. Not only by the audience, but also by numbers-man Charlie, the new doctor brought in by the board to get results. He is determined to push the plateauing study to its limits in order to discover what Jessie’s apparently flawed brain is hiding.
But although this a world where Down’s Syndrome has just been eradicated and the results of routine pregnancy scans can result in court-ordered abortions, it is still eerily recognisable. This is in part due to the excellent cast: Brian Doherty’s Tom is faultless and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Jessie mesmerises in what is a challenging role. But their world is also a convincing extrapolation of our own because in Kate Hewitt’s masterly production you are made to understand and feel complicit in the oppression of freedom and choice. On occasion, you find yourself siding with the play’s oppressors; after all, they are only respectable scientists and concerned parents. Indeed, recent news stories rumouring NHS screening for Down’s Syndrome seem to pave the way for Rushbrooke’s imagined future.
It is the scope of viewpoint and multiplicity of the characters that makes this production such a sympathetic exploration of what it means to be normal. If you’re looking for them (and the play insists that you do), all the characters display psychopathic tendencies at times. Charlie can be unemotional, Caroline selfish and all manipulative. Instead of proving that Jessie isn’t a psychopath, Rushbrooke throws doubt over everything: where do you draw the line between love and manipulation; parenting and coercion; imagination and insanity or being and acting? Aren’t we all psychopathic? The answers to these questions are important, obviously, but also immaterial, because we live in between the lines, on an ethical spectrum. Even Jessie’s hard-won set of colouring pencils do not contain all the colours needed to capture the birds that she sees flying around above her neatly made bed.