Date: 09/08/1990
Author: Matt Wolf

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.