Rona Munro has written a desolate drama about life behind prison walls and of the doleful existence of those who have to inhabit them. Institutionalisation is a barren and bleak existence in which the normal interactions of every day life, which consist of countless little acts of kindness that so often go unnoticed, are destroyed by regimentation. In this environment one is forced to encounter one’s own inner reality and all the devastation that that can cause a sensitive individual who is forced to live with one moment of homicidal rage as their only badge of self-identity. In this setting, one is always firstly known, to oneself and others, as a person who committed a criminal act!
Fay is one such prisoner who is serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband. The play begins when Fay’s daughter Josie visits her for the first time. The last time this mother and daughter had seen each other was on the day of the stabbing fifteen years earlier when Josie was only ten years old. Since that day Fay had not only made no attempts to see or communicate with her daughter but also had not even referred to her in fifteen years. A prison warden expresses surprise when Josie introduces herself as Fay’s daughter, “Never had a daughter in the picture at all”.
The play is focused upon this relationship between mother and daughter. We watch it grow from the first anxious and feeble attempts at friendship into a strong mother and daughter bond. Most of the script is in the form of a dialogue between these two women, which takes place during the visiting hour that Fay is allowed once per week.
Josie has decided to visit her mother in order to recover her repressed memories of her father, she is longing to know what kind of person he was. Fay, wishing to break the monotony of prison life, seeks to live vicariously through her daughter Josie. She encourages her staid career orientated daughter to let her hair down, visit a night-club and find herself a boyfriend. She passes on helpful hints on how to make friends with strangers inside a pub and through these interactions one gains a vision of the gregarious creature Fay once was.
During these conversations the questions that underlie this drama slowly re-surface again and again. Why did Fay kill her husband? What sort of father was her husband to Josie? Why did Fay not try to see her daughter who was only a young child at the time of the murder?
The answers when they come paint an uncomfortable picture. When we can explain the why and wherefore of terrible actions we feel much safer and comfortable with ourselves and with others. When we discover that love and rage in normal domestic life can have such devastating homicidal consequences can we ever feel at ease when we open our kitchen drawer to reach for a knife? As Fay says to her daughter about losing control of your feelings “Just never lose it with a kitchen knife in your hand. That’s my advice to you.”
Sandy McDade gives a phenomenal performance as Fay. She looks agitated and anxious when she first meets her daughter and has the hungry look of a person desperately seeking sustenance as she vicariously lives her daughter’s experiences. She expresses the vulnerability of a small child and yet the embers of a destructive rage still glow hot in her eyes.
Through I found the play captivating I also felt vaguely disappointed with the script. When Josie asked awkward questions that goes to the heart of their relationship the author simply has Fay insist that she does not want to speak about it. When in the end Fay does tell the truth it stands barren and alone. There had been no hints, no digging for the truth, no ground explored before hand and so one is even more perplexed by the truth when it is told. We are left with only our own suppositions as to the reasons for what happened on that fateful day and the immediate effect it had upon Fay and her daughter. This play raises interesting questions that peaks one’s curiosity but fails to provide any satisfactory answers.
Notices from the popular press....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Slow-moving, sombre production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " Emotionally honest and socially resonant.....a very good play." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Excellent....gripping." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Lovely sentimental stuff, potentially. But it's about 20 minutes too long...." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Painstaking, highly static prison drama."
External links to full reviews from newspapers