Date: 09/13/1990
Author: 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.