Date: 09/15/1993
Author: Kate Bassett

Kitchen sink, sinking kitsch
On one level David Spencer’s new play is a kitchen sink situation. Two sisters, Karen and Frances wash up, talk about the crud an telly and get drunk an a carton of plonk. Indeed, Land of the Living, looks, in brief flashes, like a television soap or sitcom.

But Spencers brilliance is to take the trite realism of those genres and move beyond it to far greater truths. He selects a slice of ordinary life and show through with grief. These Yorkshire housewives suffer domestic violence and martial strife. Both are struggeling to break free from their family past and cope with bereavement: the anger, guilt and loneliness caused by their mother’s suicide.

Spencer is psychologically searching. He plants depth charges in his characters. In the midst of the main action, fraught interior monologues surface or memories cut in, the latter played out by two young actresses depicting France and Karen as children (Sarah Doherty and the quietly intense Michelle Hardwick). Scenes can shift gear in a split second. The adult Keren tells lightbulb jokes: suddenly Frances is screaming and violent. So too, naturalistic dialogue flows into the patternistic, or grammar falls away, leaving a stream of consciousness thar has the impressionistic sweep of a Greek tragic chorus.

The production has its problems. Shimon Castiel’s set is confused and ugly. There is a television set on a box of quartz chippings and a sink set in a section of chuchyard wall like some fitted unit from the Stone Age.

Still, the combination of the concrete and abstract does fit Spencer’s mixes styles, and the chippings crushed underfoot disturbingly echo the suppressed explosions going off inside the characters.

Long, static monologues are broken up by the speakers stepping, between paragraphs, into different spotlights. This blocking, by director Sue Dunderdale is aimless but surprisingly unintrusive, principally because Sue Devaney and Lorraine Ahsbourne power though problems with their charged, sensitive performances as the older Karen and Frances.

Devaney (Karen), as tough and funny as she is wounded, delivers monologues with engrossing filmic naturalism. Ashbourne (Frances, nicknamed Frantic) is wild. She rides a couple of untamed soliloquies, keeping a firm grip through over-alliterative poetic lines, that lurch to and fro like a bucking bronco and would have a less determined actress out of the saddle.

Still, Spencer’s blend of vibrantly colloquial dialect with passages approaching verbal expressionism is engrossing, bold and – with a little tinkering – could be consummately theatrical.

Land of the Living, Spencer’s sequel to Killing the Cat, takes on socio-political issues including wife battering, homosexuality, incestuous love and the legacy of broken homes. But it does so with humanity and delicacy. Above all, Spencer depicts women’s live with great perception.