Date: 08/31/1990
Author: Harry Eyres

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
without comment.