Some stories stick in the mind and you wish they hadn’t. I must have seen Maxwell Anderson’s psychological thriller, The Bad Seed, decades ago, long before having two daughters (and a son) of my own, and as I sat in the dark in Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre, with a dread it all came flooding back.
Rhoda Penmark is every parent’s worst nightmare – not that you’d know it by her well-groomed appearance. The eight-year-old is charming, polite, intelligent, a picture of innocence who is eager to please and delightful to be around.
But there’s nothing innocent about Rhoda and, over the course of two hours, her unnerving behaviour chills you to the bone.
OutFox Productions are on to a winner with The Bad Seed thanks to outstanding performances from Rebecca Rayne as the titular bad seed, Rhoda, and Beth Eyre as her mother, Christine, plus it has a brilliantly clever plot.
The accents of the supporting cast are generally rather dubious, more the Deep South of, say, Mississippi with an undertone of estuary English, than Tallahassee, Florida, where the story is set, but US dialects are notoriously tricky.
Parents watching The Bad Seed may return home and look at their own moppets through fresh eyes. I’m not saying that you’ll suddenly see them as high-functioning sociopaths but this play will put the wind up you and is sure to reignite the long-standing debate of nature v nurture.
Anderson’s horrifying play, based on a novel by William March, is set in the 1950s and concerns the Penmark family. Dad, Ken, works away from home, leaving his nervous young wife at home to look after their lovely and obliging daughter, Rhoda.
Their apartment is owned by Monica Breedlove (Jessica Hawksley), a well-meaning but interfering old lady who is obsessed with psychoanalysis and who thinks of Rhoda as a surrogate granddaughter.
The production is a bit of a slow-burner. Rhoda is so saccharine-sweet you wonder what, if anything, is going to happen. But the audience slowly shuffles to the edge of their seats as some truly terrifying events unfold.
The rather menacing handyman, Leroy (Brian Merry giving the creeps), is on to Rhoda while her mom has issues of her own.
I can’t give too much away without spoiling the plot but it has you jumping right out of your seat.
Rayne is mesmerising as young Rhoda, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Obviously she doesn’t look eight, but she does convince as a fresh-faced young girl with a demonic black heart.
That’s largely down to director John Fricker who does an excellent job subtly bringing out the menace in her performance without sacrificing the sweetness.
He also teases riveting turns out of Beth Eyre and the rest of the cast without letting them running away with the melodrama.
Watch it – if you dare…but probably best to leave the little ones at home. You don’t want to give them any ideas.
The Bad Seed runs at the Brockley Jack until April 1.
Rhoda is a picture of innocence. The Bad Seed is every parent’s nightmare. Watch at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre, at your peril.