'Dixon and Daughters' review — Brid Brennan commands a visceral, hotheaded play
Read our three-star review of Deborah Bruce and Clean Break's collaboration, Dixon and Daughters, at the National Theatre, currently running through 10 June.
The toxic legacy of abuse permeates every shadowy nook of the gauzy and intricate two-tiered set for Dixon and Daughters, the Deborah Bruce play originally intended for a premiere that was delayed, as has so often happened, by the pandemic.
Staged across the varying levels of a home to which the aging, acerbic Mary (Brid Brennan) has returned following a months-long prison sentence, the play percolates across 90 uninterrupted minutes. It thrums with themes of vengeance and retribution accompanied by lashings of bile.
If the result is sometimes a bit much, tilting towards melodrama that the director Róisín McBrinn’s production tends to encourage, the play wears its messiness on a cautionary sleeve in the sort of pressure-cooker domestic drama one associates more with the American theatre (I kept thinking of August: Osage County).
Some 30 or more years ago, Brennan won a Tony for playing the quiet, watchful Agnes in Dancing at Lughnasa which, as timing would have it, is now in revival at the National next door. So it’s a marker of the performer’s astounding versatility that the tart-tongued grandmother she gives us here is as volubly rancorous as her Mundy sister back in the day was indrawn.
“Don’t ever get old,” we’re told, which in Mary’s case means returning to her spooked-out Yorkshire home to deliver a scalding appraisal of a loveless household that includes two daughters, Julie (Andrea Lowe) and Bernie (Liz White), whom Mary is quick to upbraid. This fearless scold takes a rather kinder view of her granddaughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani), a Leeds University student who participates in the pile-up of revelations that lie in wait.
The plotting depends on the sort of purposefully withheld information that, as a dramatic tactic, can pall after a while: cryptic references to “what happened” that exist to be explained in due course. Paule Constable’s crepuscular lighting hints at a home that knows its share of horrors, and the production comes with enough blackouts and ominous sound effects to rival the much-travelled 2:22 A Ghost Story across town. (The designer, Kat Heath, facilitates our sense of this family home as an above-ground catacomb.)
The narrative springs surprises not to be revealed here, beyond making clear that Mary’s now-dead husband is gone but not forgotten and that Mary is none too eager to see her rampaging stepdaughter, Briana (Alison Fitzjohn). Known as Tina back in the day, Briana arrives unbidden like some nightmarish force, scrawling her name on a lampshade and raising anew the spectre of past misdeeds that can no longer go unremarked.
As if this assemblage weren’t turbulent enough, Bruce introduces a fearful newcomer to the fold in the figure of Leigh (Posy Sterling), a one-time prison companion of Mary to whom the older woman can offer the succour she has long held from her own daughters. Not that Lowe’s Julie is in a great place herself, faced with an abusive partner of her own whom this all-female play keeps offstage.
Presented in collaboration with Clean Break, the women’s theatre company established in 1979 to grant stories of women in and out of prison their place at the cultural table, Dixon and Daughters courses with a visceral energy that sweeps you along, even when the bald-faced emotion raises the temperature to boiling point and beyond.
The wonderful Brennan, hair pulled back in keeping with her comparably pinched expression, finds a dark comedy in Mary’s attack-mode theatrics, and she has the audience nodding as one at the character’s declaration late in the play that “I can’t believe this”.
The others are no less vivid, even when the writing overplays its hand: Briana’s therapy-speak outstays its welcome, and references to Oprah one minute and Little Orphan Annie the next seem beside the point given the singular cross-currents of enmity on view here. There’s nothing genteel or polite about a play that parades its pain for all to see, and you leave the auditorium aware that the world outside may be dangerous but that often the greatest damage begins at home.
Dixon and Daughters is at the National Theatre through 10 June.
Photo credit: Andrea Lowe (Julie) and Yazmin Kayani (Ella) in Dixon and Daughters at the National Theatre (Photo by Helen Murray)
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