Paul T Davies reviews Dixon and Daughters, a play by Deborah Bruce now playing at the National Theatre.
Dixon and Daughters.
25 April 2023
Houses can harbour memories, some of them not seen through a nostalgic filter. On the morning that Mary is released from prison and brought home by her daughter Bernie, all she wants to do is sleep in her own bed. But another daughter, Julie, has been sleeping in it, which infuriates Mary, (from the outset we are asking why), and there is a spare room that none of the women want to go into. Writer Deborah Bruce beautifully keeps the questions at bay, until the shocking abuse that Dixon inflicted on his daughters and wife are revealed, mainly through the redemptive force of Briana, once Tina, whose allegations against her father led to a court case in which Mary perjured herself, leading to her sentence. Clean Break, who work with women who have lived experience of prison or have been at risk or affected by the justice system, have produced an engaging piece that thrums with anger, yet shot through with a sardonic humour that helps the women survive.
Set designer Kat Heath keeps secrets in the shadows, light thrown onto them sharply at times, but I wondered if the sight lines may be a problem for the audience on auditorium right, as the action in Mary’s bedroom is high up and to the far stage left. I also found the jarring lights and slamming doors during time elapses a little melodramatic set against the naturalistic acting of this strong ensemble. As Mary, Brid Brennan captures her steel will, barriers strongly up, imprisoning herself within her denial of her abusive husband and the deep scars he has left, her revelation of his abuse on her is heart-breaking as she lets her grief escape. Alison Fitzjohn is a force of nature as Briana, determined to bring everything out in the open, chanting online platitudes and self-help catchphrases, yet there is a depth to her performance that stops it being a comedy turn. She moves the sofa to reveal her childhood blood staining the carpet, and this symbolically brings all to light. Andrea Lowe is beautifully fragile as drinker Julie, herself hiding bruises received from her abusive partner, Liz White crackling with martyrdom as the organised, stable Bernie, Yazmin Kayani as her daughter Ella devasted as she realises the true horror of the family history. Completing the cast is Rosy Sterling as released prisoner Leigh, taken in by Mary, and, although she is clearly a plot device to prompt questions and answers, her energetic performance reveals the inadequacies of support for released prisoners.
As each woman confesses their control by men, (Ella wanting to leave University because of a creepy lecturer with inappropriate advances), the play slips too obviously into verbatim. Also, occasionally, the humour sits uneasily alongside the subject matter, although it’s clear the women use it as a defence mechanism. But, as Helena Kennedy QC discusses in an excellent programme article, misogyny is about a way of thinking, and the normalisation of it is powerfully conveyed in this well-paced, deeply engaging play. The play ends with a simple, yet powerful act of redemption, and it’s these moments that make this production memorable.