The National Theatre continues its support of new writing at the Dorfman with
It’s disappointing to find there’s little here that we haven’t seen before
Written by Deborah Bruce, the play is brought to the National Theatre by Clean Break, one of only two theatre companies in the world to focus on women and criminal justice. Clean Break’s aim is to inspire debate and effect change.
With that in mind, it’s disappointing to find there’s little here that we haven’t seen before.
A search in IMDB shows that in the last 10 years, there have been 597 films released that include “child abuse” as a keyword. Spread evenly that’s a new depiction hitting the big screen every week. And that’s before we look at the TV, theatre and real life.
Dixon and Daughters doesn’t seem to know where it stands amongst this crowd, shifting in tone from drama to comedy, with elements of farce and even horror. At times, it becomes difficult to watch, not because of its themes, but due to its haphazard, jarring delivery.
The Dixon of the title may be the name of the recently deceased abusive father. It’s an odd title considering the name is never mentioned – at least not to my note. It might just as well be the maiden name of the mother, Mary. She returns home at the start of the play, having served half the six-month sentence she received for perverting the course of justice during her husband’s trial.
Family dynamics are quickly laid out. The relationship between them defined by expectations of what a family should be, rather than the truth of what it is.
Mary is a ball of self-pity, running on resentment. Her words are bullets of anger intended to hurt her daughters. An angry cyclone of flat vowel sounds propels Brid Brennan’s performance.
She tolerates “sensible organised “daughter Bernie (Liz White) whose job was to pick her up and drive her home. She has no time for daughter Julie (performed mainly by the shrugging shoulders and exasperated hand moves of Andrea Lowe), who she sees as an alcoholic wastrel, deserving of the abuse dealt out by her partner.
The only smile she gives is for Bernie’s “bright as she is beautiful” daughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani, who looks around 30, speaks like she’s 20 and bounces gaily around the room like she’s not quite 10.)
Together they walk a tightrope between truth and tact. The addition of two more daughter-like roles topples that tightrope.
A Clown, Displaced.
Mary has saved her real vitriol for stepdaughter Tina (Alison Fitzjohn). As her husband’s accuser, Mary holds Tina solely responsible for the graffitied “Paedo” on his grave and for her own prison sentence.
Here's where the tone begins to jar.
Tina appears looking overdressed for anywhere, wearing a tight, layered, purple dress, and a fake fur coat. Tina recently changed her name to Briana, in a clear attempt to reclaim her life. This becomes a running gag, aided by the pretentious name choice, used to cast doubt on her truth.
Adding to the shakiness of her claims, much of Briana’s dialogue consists of self-help mantras straight from Hallmark or speeches of forgiveness that sound like an American TV evangelist.
The character is like a clown, displaced from a sitcom. You expect it may be a device, like she is being “in the face of adversity” funny or “masking true emotions” funny. But this isn’t a character whose comedy is intended. Briana isn’t written for us to laugh with. She seems to be there for us to laugh at.
Fitzjohn has the physicality and timing to give a strong performance of the character as written. But it’s written for a show with the high camp of an Absolutely Fabulous episode.
If there’s a point to this representation, I’m afraid it’s been lost on me.
Fool With Tourette’s.
The final “daughter” is Leigh (Posy Sterling), a young woman with whom Mary became close as they worked together in the prison library. Mary forgives her obvious flaws and overlooks her crimes and addiction, showing sympathy and understanding for the childhood abuse suffered that made her this way.
It’s hard to see the intensity in this relationship that has little base to it. If you can accept that, it becomes difficult to believe it developed over a few weeks. If you can also swallow that, it then seems odd that Mary seemingly bumped into her on the street the day after her release, unaware of her surrogate’s release or location. It’s a stretch to suspend so much belief.
As Mary offers Leigh her bed, having just refused it to Julie - also homeless and an addict – it is clear that the character exists to illustrate the contradictory parallels. Once that has been writ large, Leigh’s purpose is diminished.
With nothing else to do, she becomes the Fool with Tourette’s to Mary’s Lear with a Northern twang, constantly interrupting with swear-laden inappropriateness. Again, no fault lies with the acting. Sterling fully inhabits the role and has an acid sharpness to makes us all titter in the aisles. She just doesn’t need to be there.
Kat Heath has designed a two-storey Any House with its fourth wall removed: the sort that could belong to Any Family in Any Suburb. It only looks off-kilter when you look closer.
Downstairs the mainly unused kitchen is larger than the living room where most of the action takes place and becomes overcrowded as soon as one person enters. A door leads to a toilet that the layout dictates must be a potty in the street.
Mary’s bedroom is upstairs, opposite a sterile looking windowless room. This room, lit by naked bulb and containing only a bed, might as well have a sign on the door saying “Abuse Room: Please Knock”. Where the children who weren’t being abused slept is unclear.
Characters don’t stay put for long, moving with a rapidity that would embarrass Brian Rix. They make full use of a staircase that may be structurally impossible. It’s difficult to explain why but makes sense – or rather it doesn’t – when you see it.
A rug is pulled back to reveal the stain of blood spilled by Tina when she first mentioned her abuse. This was when she was a child. The stain has remained, the carpet has remained, the rug has remained for over 40 years.
Belief suspension is pivotal once more. Maybe the room was barely used during this time. The family may have preferred the spacious kitchen. Unless they were using that as the other bedroom of course.
These problems may seem like niggles. Possibly they are. But they are holes that, alongside the text, suggest a lack of thought. Together they erode believability. It’s not an expectation of perfection, but it’s an expectation of the National.
Of course, there is a world where this may be intentional.
Perhaps the plan was to create something that seemed normal but then break it with subtle inaccuracies. Perhaps this sense of wrongness works like product placement, subliminal messages hidden between the frames of adverts.
Perhaps this is also the reason for the problems in the writing. Perhaps the problematic tonal shifts and underwritten characters are there to permeate our subconscious minds.
Perhaps the whole piece is intended to be highly symbolic. Perhaps it is even Artaudian.
Or, you know, perhaps it could just try harder.