Blessed by David Spencer's lean script which ensures that anger bounces off
the walls of this tiny venue with full force, this impressive piece links family
break-up to social unrest, and provides meaty roles for an excellent cast.
Centering on the uneasy introspection of Danny (Sean Bean), who makes a trip
back to Yorkshire to grapple with his family background, "Killing the Cat" also
draws in a vivid portrait of a weak, blustering father (Henry Stamper) and
flashes back to a happy childhood which lasted until love was broken into tiny
Sean Bean holds the centre well as Angry Young Danny, veering convincingly
from volcanic rage and biting cynicism, to weepy sensitivity and all-out
kindness. Henry Stamper provides a visceral treat as a father trapped by his
Kate McLoughlin and Sally Rogers offer confident support as Danny's two
sisters, while Valerie Lilley, as the mother, fixes your gaze with her descent
toward mental illness.
This harrowing scenario of alienation and lost love is thankfully punctured
by bouts of earthy humour. The acting is so electric the cast almost sits in
David Spencer's award winning play, full of tense, inarticulate aggression,
examines the corrosive legacy of sexual abuse as seen through the eyes of a
young playwright, Danny, whose almost perverse determination to exhume his
working-class family's murky past rubs abrasively against their wishes. If the
main dynamic is Danny's quest for the root of his father Sam's shadowy, drink-
twisted guilt - namely Sam's interference with his sister Shelagh (Sally Rogers)
- it is deliberately obscured by what Danny thinks happened (the content of his
play), what he has been told happened, what he remembers happening and what he
imagines to have happened.
The action shuttles between the '70's and the present day on Tom Conway's
cluttered set; street lamps, dustbins and the expedient post-pub trappings of
armchair and TV evoke on the one hand council-estate familiarity and suggest on
the other the emotional and circumstantial impoverishment of the protagonists'
lives. It's a surreal arena dominated by Henry Stamper's ebullient Dubliner,
Sam, whose genuine, unaffected affection for Young Danny (Dominic Kinnaird) and
the older, wiser version (Sean Bean) is strongly contrasted to the harsh
intensity Danny employs to nail his father to the past to punish him almost in
order to forgive him. It's the arrogance of a playwright and the festering hurt
of wronged youth, but crucially, the recognition on Danny's part that he is
vulnerable to the same sin. In all, a demanding, complex work which Sue
Dunderdale directs with respect and sensitivity, exacting powerful performances
from the Soho Theatre Company.
David Spencer has written a play about the noxious effects of child abuse,
which is notable for the absence of campaigning rhetoric and accusing fingers,
and in which the social services are never mentioned. Perhaps it would be more
accurate to say that he is concerned with the breakdown of proper channels of
communication, which includes love, within a family - a breakdown which
incestuous love freezes and enforces rather than resolves. The effect in this
fine production directed by Sue Dunderdale has something of the dark intensity
of O'Neill (no accident that this is a family of Irish origin, living in West
Yorkshire) and also his structural awkwardness.
In Shimon Castiel's design, the Theatre Upstairs stage is arranged
lengthways, giving it an uncommon breadth, to form a dingy, basement-like space
full not only of bicycles, dustbins, television and cat food but also of the
impediments of the past. This allows the play to develop simultaneously at
different levels of time.
Two of these are defined by the ages of the two actors playing Danny, the son
of the family who (in the present) has come back up north as an unemployed
writer to confront his and his family's past. This Danny is taken with raw
energy, anger and desperation by Sean Bean. He also appears as a boy of 14,
played with quiet sensitivity by Dominic Kinnaird. Danny is the conscience and
recording angel of the family; the fact that he has written a book called
Killing the Cat, which reveals the family's dark secrets, enables other
characters reading from it to speak what they would not normally say.
At the centre of the action is Danny's father Sam, an immigrant Irish factory
worker imbued with charm, dignity and rich vowels by Henry Stamper. Behind the
charm lies an orphanage upbringing, violence, and a feeling that drink excuses
most things but not the stealthy abuse of his daughter Shelagh; he drinks to
erase the guilt.
Spencer is stronger on his male characters than on the female ones who are
the obvious victims. The sisters Kathy (Kate McLoughlin) and Shelagh (Sally
Rogers) react much more stoically than Danny, accepting that life must continue,
though the bricked-up room seems more and more like a prison. Their mother Joan
(Valerie Lilley) is seen at one point in catatonic despair, then walks out
What increasingly seems to be the Royal Court's house style - short, sharp
plays written in jagged, non-naturalistic stabs - is reinvigorated in David
Spencer's "Killing the Cat" (Theatre Upstairs), the Soho Theatre Company
offering that won this year's Verity Bargate award. Spencer lives in Berlin,
but his play returns him to the terrain of his earlier works, "Releevo" and
"Space": working class Yorkshire and families living in a crisis that they can
barely articulate. His authorial alter ego, a writer named Danny (Sean Bean),
makes his need to comprehend itself a theme of the play, as the various
incidents from his turbulent childhood and adolescence are interlaced with
excerpts from the book, Killing the Cat, which we see him offering up to sister
Shelagh (Sally Rogers) for approval.
"Maybe I'll write a comedy," Danny tells his boozing father Sam (Henry
Stamper) at the end, in a curtain line that nicely avoids any possible
melodrama. And yet the mordant sarcasm of the remark is inescapable in the
light of what the play unfolds - a life marked by cycles of violence, pain and
repression, in which the sins of the swaggering Irish father seem inevitably to
be visited on his brooding and introspective Yorkshire son.
Uniting all the characters is a need for "the way out", as Danny's other
sister, Kathy (Kate McLoughlin), puts it. While Danny finds a catharsis of
sorts in prose, Sam seeks his escape route in drink, shutting out the memory of
prior incestuous episodes with Shelagh which Danny, discovering these belatedly,
calls on him to confront. Relegated to the sidelines is Danny's divorcee
mother, Joan (Valerie Lilley), a woman condemned by her own inarticulacy to want
from life one thing which she couldn't name, "so she couldn't ask for it."
Sufficiently expressive is the ashen-faced, wide-eyed Lilley that the part seems
even more disappointingly underwritten.
Sue Dunderdale's direction makes adroit use of every aspect of the small
Court studio, as the six actors (Danny is in fact shown as two selves, Bean's
questing adult and Dominic Kinnaird's troubled child) lay bare a shared history
of unvoiced wishes and vague hopes, some of which, Spencer implies, may yet be
answered. On a hot night punctuated by thunder showers outside, this exemplary
company generated that unusually electric heat which comes from witnessing a
relatively unknown playwright on the verge of a breakthrough.
"Killing the Cat" opens with a fragmented sequence of moments from a family's
history, past and present. Although the links between the fragments at first
seem obscure, each moment has perfect emotional clarity. The effect is
kaleidoscopic, as little shards of atmosphere, each one razor sharp at the
edges, gradually begin to resolve themselves into a pattern.
In a decaying house that was once the family home, Danny prowls around
sniffing out the past like a bloodhound. If the past won't deliver itself into
his hands, he'll hunt it down.
Danny's mother used to tell him "You're alright son." but that was before she
went through the psychiatric mill, before they "plugged her into the national
grid system". She wasn't mad, she was just "fatigued with sadness". Danny's
sister Shelagh once thought that the things her father made her do were
"alright", because if it's your Dad and he tells you it's alright, it must be.
Lost in an endless loop of actions, reactions and repetitions, Danny can't
see a way of getting clear of any of it. "I'm not alright and I tell you I'm
not alright." Sociologically speaking everyone in "Killing the Cat" is a victim
of some kind; but it's not a play about passivity and victimisation, it's about
loving, being sad and getting on with it. The characters are dynamic, if
confused, participants in their own lives.
The play received the 1990 Verity Bargate Award, and quite right too. David
Spencer's writing is poetic, on the ball and very much alive. He manages to
play out a thread of real humour in the grimmest situations while avoiding the
pit of saccharin that lurks around the "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry" school of
drama. This production by the Soho Theatre company is beautifully directed (by
Sue Dunderdale) and the cast of six are universally excellent. Highly
The Independent (London)
September 13, 1990, Thursday
By GEORGINA BROWN
David Spencer's Killing
the Cat explores the repercussions for a working-class family
when the son writes a novel exposing his father's sexual abuse of his daughter. It is
Spencer's second winner of the Verity Bargate Award for new writers and an exceptional
piece - dense, demanding and boldly conceived, and here given a searing production by
Sue Dunderdale and a superb cast.
Danny (Sean Bean at his
most transfixing) and his sister Sheilagh (played with raw
emotion by Sally Rogers) hate their father, Sam, for what he has done to Sheilagh; but
they love him because he is their father. Spencer allows his characters and their
relationships to be infinitely complex, riddled with plausible ambiguities and
contradictory emotions, and as a result they are frighteningly real. It's the
children's inability (or perhaps determined refusal) to hate their father that
suspends our moral judgement of him. A scene in which Sam sits mindlessly watching
a train set go round and round provides one of many details through which Spencer
invites our sympathy for him - his childhood in an orphanage, the hatred Irish
immigrants face, his wife's coldness. Alan Devlin gives a superlatively horrible
performance as Sam, proud, pugnacious and pissed, unquestioningly sentimental about
his kids and himself and stone-deaf to criticism.
With almost cinematic fluency,
the play slips backwards and forwards in time and place.
The clever, gentle child (Dominic Kinnaird) who hero-worshipped his father is seen in
sharp juxtaposition with the cynical adult he has become, a writer full of rage on
behalf of his sister. The catharsis he experiences in writing about the abuse
(''I was born with too many feelings. If I didn't find anywhere to put them, I'd
die of them'') is for Sheilagh a second invasion , which raises pertinent questions
about a writer's right to feed on other people's lives.
It is hard to pin down the
narrative any more precisely than the play's oblique title.
This might refer to a flashback scene in which a pet cat has been run over and Sam
puts it out of its misery, an act that always haunted Danny. Or it might refer to
the fact that Danny could wreak vengeance on his father by killing the cat Sam is
besotted with. But the validity of each individual's version of reality and the
inevitably imperfect understanding of another's point of view are exactly those
areas that Spencer is exploring. The imaginative power of his play lies in its
insistence that we pay attention.
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