Mary, played with absolute conviction by Brid Brennan, returns home after a brief spell in prison. She is joined by her daughters Julie (Andrea Lowe) and Bernie (Liz White), and Bernie’s own daughter Ella (Yasmin Kayani).
Immediately there’s conflict, with Mary openly hostile towards Julie, a recovering alcoholic who’s sought refuge from her abusive partner in her mother’s house, and an increasingly exasperated Bernie trying and failing to establish some kind of peace.
At first the dialogue, delivered in broad Yorkshire accents (the play is set in Bradford), blends humour into the women’s confrontations, Mary’s unreasonable pigheadedness immune to any attempts at conciliation, Julie absorbing her mother’s aggressions with the passive demeanour of somebody who’s well used to being put upon and worse.
The plot is unveiled like a jigsaw puzzle, its ghastly image becoming clearer with every new piece; and the action comes to a head with the entrance of Briana (Alison Fitzjohn), Mary’s stepdaughter, who acts as a powerful catalyst for the play’s denouement.
Liz White (Bernie), Yazmin Kayani (Ella) and Alison Fitzjohn (Briana) in Dixon and Daughters at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray
Leigh (Posy Sterling), a down-and-out former prison friend of Mary’s, is a superfluous character; her back story of victimhood unclear, she contributes little more than the occasional profanity, bringing a measure of light relief to a play a little issue-heavy.
Directed with a sure hand by Róisín McBrinn, Dixon and Daughters was written by Deborah Bruce in collaboration with Clean Break, a women’s theatre company that focusses on women and prison.
Its themes are many and interrelated, with guilt first and foremost. Mary, herself a battered wife, failed to protect her daughters from her abusive husband; her corrosive guilt will haunt her forever. Nevertheless, should she have been sent to jail for lying in court in defence of her husband?
Julie follows the pattern of many severely abused children by entering into an abusive relationship; she, too, has a dysfunctional relationship with her own sons.
Briana is deeply marked by her childhood abuse – shrill, aggressive and aggrieved, she has, nevertheless, found a kind of liberation through a process of self-help that leaves her mouthing formulaic phrases, still damaged, but perhaps in charge of her own life.
Kat Heath’s set, a cross-section of a comfortable two-storey house, becomes gradually more claustrophobic as the horrors it has witnessed are revealed and we become aware of the meaning of one bedroom always left empty.
Paule Constable’s lighting combines with Sinéad Diskin’s sound design to produce horror film effects between scenes.Though this helps create a sense of disquiet and premonition, it is perhaps a little histrionic at times.
With its catalogue of differently damaged women Dixon and Daughters comes across as a little didactic; it does, however, offer plenty of food for thought in the ongoing debate about how to deal with misogyny and the consequences of male violence against women.
|Dixon and Daughters, Dorfman Theatre Review
|National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP
15 Apr 23 – 10 Jun 23, 19:30 mats Wed & Sat at 14:30. Dur.: 90 mins no interval
|Click here to book