A beautifully directed production sees six women bring the aftermath of child abuse into harsh relief in Deborah Bruce’s atmospheric and suspense-filled family drama.

Credit: Helen Murray

True to Clean Break’s commitment to ‘keeping the subject of women in prison on the cultural radar’, Dixon and Daughters starts with an ex-convict’s homecoming. Mary (played in striking, conflict-riddled technicolour by Bríd Brennan), has returned to her house in a Northern town after a six month stint in prison for an as-yet undisclosed crime. Two of her daughters, the recovering-alcoholic and recently separated Julie (Andrea Lowe), and the younger yet altogether more together Bernie (Liz White) are to help her settle back in and recalibrate, along with Ella (Yazmin Kayani), Bernie’s adult daughter, back home for reading week from uni in Leeds.

What starts as a terse reckoning over domestic quibbles swiftly descends into a vastly entrenched conflict over the troubles that have plagued their family, seeing the women come for each other in a series of increasingly disturbing conflicts. The writing is a masterclass in withholding information, eking out the backstory with expert pace, and upping the ante with each new morsel of information. For a story very much about psychological repression mechanisms, the form is suited perfectly, and the sequential introduction of the play’s biggest two characters sets the drama off like a bomb.

Bernie and Julie’s estranged step-sister Breana (Alison Fitzjohn) sneaks in at night against Mary’s wishes. Formerly known as Tina, Breanna has clearly worked hard to change her ways, seething round the doll’s house set like a banshee back to curse the family for their wrongdoing. Only she’s there to help them heal. Fitzjohn’s jaded, broken yet utterly steadfast characterisation is exceptional, nailing the sincerity and humour of Breana’s AA-inspired mantras.

Mary’s emotionally volatile ex-prison mate Leigh (Posy Sterling) adds another layer of care and trauma to the story, bringing light relief with her many off-kilter exclamations of female solidarity whilst granting us access to Mary’s time in prison and another perspective on homelessness and women struggling in the aftermath of incarceration.

The dialogue is peppy and emotionally rich, the characters incredibly specific and well-drawn, but the standout feature of the productions is the story’s brilliant use of set and space. Kat Heath’s immediately melancholic cross-section of a domestic interior allows the characters to move between rooms and relationships with a stunning fluidity — as Breana states, the house is her best witness to what has happened before.

Credit: Helen Murray

Paule Constable’s lighting bolsters this visual atmosphere, shifting focus subtly between rooms and characters to draw our attention between drama and the solitude of quiet vulnerability. Even from the off, it manages to capture that milky, yearning potential of early dawn light, and it really does feel like we are staying up all night with Julie. 

As with Downstate and All of Us, the Dorfman stage has yet again hosted a sumptuously emotional production of a hard-hitting, naturalistic drama that showcases important and under-reported stories with dramatic flair, humour and heart. Dixon and Daughters presents a powerful message about stamping out abuse, and the many repercussions of living in a world where men have the power to control women’s lives, shining a light on those affected with tenderness, thought and humanity. Even if this is a form of theatre we’ve seen many times, the craft on display here is exceptional, with an exemplary blend of politics and artistry. A highly recommended watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dixon and Daughters is playing in the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre until the 10th of June. Tickets and more info can be found here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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