How one family turned their tragedy into verbatim theatre

Game Over dramatises the murder, five years ago, of 14-year-old Breck Bednar. 

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One Saturday evening this month, at a converted hospital chapel in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Lorin LaFave and her 17-year-old triplets, Carly, Chloe and Sebastian, attended the world premiere of Game Over, a play about the defining tragedy of their lives – the murder, five years ago, of Lorin’s son, and the triplets’ older brother, Breck Bednar. Breck was 14 when he was killed by 18-year-old Lewis Daynes, a fellow gamer who had groomed him online. The prosecution identified “a sadistic and sexual motivation”; Daynes is now serving a life sentence for murder.

The shocking case, exacerbated by the fact that Surrey Police failed to respond adequately when LaFave reported her son was in danger, was splashed all over the media at the time. It still commands a lot of coverage today, thanks partly to the Breck Foundation, which educates parents and children about online safety. “If I had heard someone like me speaking about this, Breck would still be here,” says LaFave, an American living in the UK. (Breck was named after Breckenridge, Colorado, where she and his father – her ex-husband, the oil trader Barry Bednar – first met.)

Eager to have the story adapted for theatre and made available for schools to perform, she contacted the playwright Mark Wheeller, a retired drama teacher with a long history in verbatim theatre – plays constructed entirely from the words of people involved. It’s a byword for hard-hitting drama with a torn-from-the-headlines immediacy, and has been used to great effect to address subjects such as the fatal shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes (Stockwell, 2009), the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly (Justifying War, 2003) and the murder of Stephen Lawrence (The Colour of Justice, 1999).

Praising the latter, David Hare said the play served partly as “a rebuke to the British theatre for its continuing drift towards less and less important subject matter”. Certainly, the knowledge that we are hearing words that have been spoken rather than fabricated brings an inarguable authenticity. Robin Soans, writer of Talking to Terrorists (2005), notes that the audience for a verbatim play understands “that they’re not going to be lied to”. Not that a documentary approach precludes theatricality. In London Road (2011), the real words of an Ipswich community scarred by the murders of five women are not only preserved down to the last “um” and “ah”, but also set to music.

Game Over has its share of audacious touches. There are five Lorins on stage at the same time – an idea that came to Wheeller after LaFave told him that she had been “torn apart” by her son’s death. And there are dance-like interactions between mother and murderer; although Breck’s death is not seen on stage, all the Lorins start screaming, and Lewis lifts one of them up and tips her upside-down. I couldn’t help but be distracted sitting in the second row directly behind LaFave and her children. It was hard not to feel protective and to watch the play through their eyes, especially given the intimacy of the space. The actors – including the delicate Tom Fletcher as Breck and Matthew Sims as Daynes – were only inches away.

Breck’s father was interviewed by Wheeller but chose not to attend. (“He can’t handle it,” LaFave tells me.) Yet it was his equitable commentary that provided the evening’s most salutary moment. He talks in the play of having struggled with the compassion he felt towards Daynes, who had been abandoned by his parents: “His life was ruined, Breck’s life was ruined, our lives are ruined and, I don’t know how you write a play, but I’d like to ask you to have this in the back of your mind…”

When those words are spoken on stage, we’re reminded that the waste of life extends far beyond the dead. For this reason, I’d have preferred the otherwise judicious director, Lynsey Wallace, to have encouraged a less dastardly interpretation of the role of Daynes. Young audiences need to see him as human as well as monstrous – with light and dark shading, or they won’t believe they could have fallen under his spell just as Breck did.

To break the odd silence after the final blackout, when no one knew quite what was meant to happen next, LaFave stood up and someone put a follow-spot on her as she expressed her gratitude for the production. She had found it incredibly powerful, she said. (She also commended “the artsy bits”.)

Everyone mingled with the teenage cast from Beaumont School over drinks afterwards; Carly and Chloe exchanged Instagram details with their on-stage counterparts, while their brother Sebastian scribbled in a notebook. “He’s got four Moleskines going,” LaFave revealed. “I don’t know what he’s going to do with it all but they say it’s therapeutic to express yourself.” Do those therapeutic benefits extend to her? “I’m very goal-oriented. For me, it’s a goal achieved to be able to reach young people in this way. But it’s been hard because sometimes I just want to not think about the worst thing that ever happened to our family.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation