Simon Jenner on the South Bank
26 April 2023
Though Mary’s family want to stage a small surprise reception for her on her return home to Bradford from three months in prison, the surprises stem from Mary, then an estranged stepdaughter, then revelations all round. Deborah Bruce’s all-female Dixon and Daughters opens at the National Theatre, Dorfman, in association with Clean Break (the theatre company that focuses on women’s experiences of the criminal justice system), directed by its former artistic director Róisín McBrinn who we interview here.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Bruce is known for characters whose return to a family and friends threaten everything. The Distance featured a woman who shocks friends by announcing she’s leaving her children in Australia. Here, Mary (Brid Brennan) has brought someone back from prison with her. It might seem an altruistic act, known in prison, of an older woman looking out for a more vulnerable one. And the profoundly damaged Leigh, in her mid-twenties (Posy Sterling, a performance of hilarious and haunting distractions), certainly fits that. “I wish she was my daughter an’ all … Instead of you devious lot.”
Disturbing, but it’s happened before. Though Mary’s motives for bringing her stepdaughter Tina to live with Tina’s taxi-business owner father and their daughters many years ago emerges only slowly, with echoes in the sentence she’s just served. And now Tina, calling herself Briana (Alison Fitzjohn), is back to confront Mary. Brennan’s superbly understated, steely matriarch is unbending from the start: “She doesn’t miss a trick, does she? … She’s like bloody Poirot” daughter Bernie comments. Brennan steers between tight-lipped scorn through angry denial to the bleakest of silences, everything etched in her expression.
Bruce has crafted an extremely believable play, where two symmetrical actions 40 years apart betray both Mary’s denial and vulnerability, as the nature of her late husband is revealed – and the different impact it’s made on the three younger women as well as Mary. The shuddering farce of history repeating betrays Mary’s coping reflexes. Often a corollary of abuse, Bruce swerves from easy prescription in her six characters. Mary’s not alone. Only Briana’s recognized it and broken out.
Brid Brennan as Mary. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Equally Bruce refuses to let anyone be defined by male abuse and violence, in whatever guise. Instead we’re shown how each woman here internalizes it, even blames themselves, shrugs it off, and buries it. Bruce gives each character a chance to confront and banish.
There’s organizer Bernie (Liz White), a familiar Bruce type, whose defensiveness is an act of revelation in itself, as White sashays from Bernie’s anxiety-coping and micro-aggression to shafts of veiled tenderness. Bernie doesn’t even know her daughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani) has nearly dropped out of Leeds University for reasons only lush Julie (Andrea Lowe) fathoms, but only Briana can resolve. Kayani’s moment comes towards the end when the bright carapace drops and we’re given another narrative of abuse as Kayani physically shrivels, then breathes again in a winning performance.
Lowe’s Julie – so often blamed by everyone for drinking and surrendering to abuse – yields devastating secrets only Mary knows and has denied for years. Harassed by the boyfriend she’s left, Julie seems set to repeat a classic pattern. What Lowe achieves though with Bruce’s creation is to project a warmly appealing character who burns through traumas of blame, emerging as a natural confidante and peacemaker. Yet her story’s the most terrible, gaining one of the two huge gasps of the evening.
Fitzjohn’s Briana is at once both the funniest and most aware character of all – except in exhibiting a total lack of humour. Fitzjohn gets huge laughs repeating stock affirmation mantras, and you can see Briana’s been working on pliable Julie to repeat some of her own. It’s an echo of what Mary tries on Leigh: a checklist to opening a tea-shop. But Briana’s stature rises alongside the mantras: Fitzjohn’s first physical and assertive, then later on commandingly efficient from fixing a bandage to handling harassment cases.
And when Briana gets to her final clichés, they’re burned away to truth as you see what crucible they’ve been fired in. After all’s said Briana adds that Mary can’t forgive her and Julie, “Cos of how guilty we make you feel.” Fitzjohn gains laughs by playing Briana’s humourlessness so straight. Then silent respect as you see why.
For once the Dorfman stage seems vast. Kat Heath creates a two-storey house with gauze walls allowing occasional glimpses of kitchen, and two bedrooms often used – as is the whole house; even stairs are plot-points, though most action takes place in the tidied living-room. But the house holds histories, stains, trauma, and Paule Constable’s lighting suffuses the structure with a hint of that. As does Sinéad Diskin’s almost shlock-ish sound design. It seems initially overstated. Then, as Briana’s fierce accusation, Julie’s broken witness, and finally Mary’s own quiet reveal – with a throwaway last line – leave their different imprints, you understand this is a house of screams as well as whispers. Bruce – and McBrinn – never let up pace or revelation, right to the last redemptive act. A superb play, consummately realized by these actors.