What's in the Cat

Linda Brogan

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

(2005)

Review by Philip Fisher

The Irish have a saying, "what's in the cat is in the kitten" meaning that daughters have a genetic inheritance which requires them to make the same mistakes as their mothers.

Linda Brogan's new play, co-produced with the Contact Theatre in Manchester, is set in the Moss Side part of that city in 1974. Not too long after, this became riot country and, judging by the behaviour of young Lauren's parents, it is easy to see why.

Lauren is a semi-autobiographical representation of the playwright aged 15, and, to add a touch of poignancy, is played by Rachel Brogan, the writer's daughter. As the play opens, she leaves the hostel where she is living and returns to the family home on Christmas morning, heavily pregnant.

The only sense in which this family could be described as nuclear is that it consists of a husband, wife, son and daughter. Actually, there is another sense - it is explosive and could well blow itself apart forever, taking the neighbours with.

Father Bogey, played by David Webber, is a 50 year-old Jamaican who has had enough of his Irish wife and, having promised to remain with the family until Christmas, seems poised to desert them for a presumably younger, West Indian woman. This is a mite surprising since his idea of strenuous activity is eating, giving his hair a whisky tonic or, at a real push, standing up.

Mary Jo Randle's Margaret got pregnant at 13 and, having had four children, became pregnant by Bogey, walked out on her first husband and never looked back. Now, her only comfort is a series of hidden bottles that she uses to bolster her almost non-existent self-respect.

Their son Peter is a chip off the old block, having no interest other than inane television programmes. Christmas was never likely to be happy for this ill-matched group and even the arrival of Bogey's lugubrious brother Lee can do nothing to prevent the family going the same way as their charred turkey.

For a long time, Linda Brogan and her director Paulette Randall go to immense trouble to demonstrate the dreariness of life in this northern family. Unfortunately, they succeed all too well and despite odd moments of comedy, some members of the audience were getting to the stage of needing to stifle the Yuletide yawns that normally arrive at about the same time as the Queen's Speech.

Suddenly, from nowhere, there is an excess of dramatic action as father and mother are screaming blue murder, wielding knives either side of the kitchen door. The chances of Christmas passing without bloodshed seemed slim but somehow the other three family members calm things down, at least temporarily.

As a mother departs upstairs on Libby Watson's rickety set, with a gigantic tinsel Christmas tree climbing through the living room ceiling on to the top floor, the men folk retire to the TV.

The action hots up further as mother finishes her daily bottle and storms out into the street attacking the neighbours at the top of her voice for their supposed disapproval of her miscegenation. After a failed, half-hearted suicide attempt at the same time as her daughter's waters break, enough is enough for poor Lauren. Despite imminent motherhood she decides that the hostel is a far more salubrious home than the parental alternative.

What's in the Cat is painfully slow for its first 45 minutes but once the knives are drawn, picks up to become a fascinating kitchen-sink drama about the life of a highly volatile, mixed-race family in Manchester in the 1970s.

Mary Joe Randle is exceptional as the extraordinary Margaret and receives strong support from Rachel Brogan, who gets the balance between a daughter's frustration at and love of her mother exactly right.