Last Sunday playwright Dennis Kelly was up on stage at the Royal Opera House accepting an Olivier award for Best Musical: one of seven that Matilda the Musical took home that night. DNA takes us back to the writer’s more usual stamping ground: the murky area between right and wrong where many of his characters wind up. His writing is often characterised as “dark”, but he has said that he thinks of his characters as “trying to do the right thing but failing”. In this 2007 text, written for the Connections festival for young people and first staged at the National Theatre, he shows a group of teenagers who get themselves into deeper and deeper water as they try to scheme their way out of trouble.
Revived by Hull Truck, it emerges as a taut, compelling thriller and a modern-day spin on Lord of the Flies, exploring group behaviour and moral equivocation. A motley bunch of class mates have bullied a fellow pupil to death and in panic seek out advice from the weird but clever Phil. He comes up with a solution that will deflect attention away from them and send the police off in the wrong direction, but they, over-zealous, embellish on his instructions and end up framing an innocent man. The more they try to cover things up, the worse the moral mess becomes.
In essence you could boil the plot down to Walter Scott’s maxim “oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” and it is overly schematic. But Kelly crafts a gripping drama from the teenagers’ predicament, showing how group dynamics intertwine with individual frailties and how self-preservation allows wicked crimes to go unchecked.
Anthony Banks’s snappy production starts off a little stiffly, but becomes increasingly tense as the play gets into darker and darker territory and the characters are sharply defined, with delicate Brian (Daniel Francis-Swaby) cracking under the strain and quick-witted Cathy (Elexi Walker) being tipped into a life of crime. Leah Brotherhead is poignant as Leah, a needy little girl who never stops talking but who broadens the play’s scope with her musings, and James Alexandrou is disturbingly enigmatic as Phil, a chilling character who sits in silence, stuffing himself with junk food, apparently unmoved by the moral implications of his instructions.