Denial

Arnold Wesker
Kings Head Theatre

Nicholas Gecks as Matthew with Sally Plumb (Valerie Morgan), Clare Cameron (Jenny Young), Shelley Lang (Abigail Young) and John Bromley (Ziggy Landsman) Credit: Christopher Tribble
Clare Cameron and Sally Plumb Credit: Christopher Tribble

Cleverly constructed and beautifully written, adding carefully-crafted style to naturalistic dialogue, this is a 90-minute one-acter that feels like a full evening-length play as it explores the effect on a family of a psychotherapist’s unearthing of supposed buried memories of childhood sexual abuse.

First produced at Bristol Old Vic in 2000 and only now getting its London premier, it centres on Jennifer Young, a woman who in her thirties, when her marriage and her business have failed is looking for a reason why her life has gone wrong. In seeking some explanation that puts the blame on others she goes along with a therapist’s insistence that the roots lies in abuse by her father and mother, all memory of which she has buried within her subconscious.

With designer takis, director Adam Spreadbury-Maher places the action on a shiny ribbed oblong, with the audience on three sides, using just a couple of red plastic-seated chairs with a television screen, which at first shows a speeded-up video of a child playing with her father. This production is up close, its emotions exposed and raw.

From the accusatory telephone message (“Fucking Matthew, fucking father”) that Jenny leaves on her parents’ answering machine, the action moves backwards and forwards to show both how she develops her belief she was sexually abused when a child through Recovered Memory Therapy and the effect that her accusations have on her family and how they attempt reconciliation.

It is passionately played by a cast not afraid to pull out the stops. Nicholas Gecks’s father, his life wrecked and business ruined by Jenny’s accusations but searching his soul for what he may have done wrong that could have affected his daughter’s ability to cope with life’s problems, is a performance that blazes innocence but yet leaves a question; Stephanie Beattie as his wife Karen, wonderfully indignant when the accusation begins to include her; Shelley Lang as younger daughter Abigail, a rational lawyer trying to make her sister see sense and confronting the therapist—all excellent.

As Jenny, unwilling at first to go along with the psychotherapists theories than stubbornly refusing to hear any voice against them, Clare Cameron is particularly fine in handling her moments of breakdown while Sally Plumb as the manipulating therapist, always ready with a stone-walling answer against any criticism, presents us with a frightening didact but still leaves us wondering whether this is a self-deluding charlatan or a conscious manipulator with her own perverse agenda.

Wesker does not set out to present a balanced argument; this play is on the side of the many who have been falsely accused of abuse based on the unfounded evidence produced through Recovered Memory Therapy. The case against it is presented through a television documentary maker Sandy Cornwall, whose logical arguments draw on her own investigations. Maggie Daniels plays her, in contrast to the therapist, as enormously likeable. Do children really repress memories of serious childhood trauma? The character of Ziggy, an old friend of Karen’s father who is a holocaust survivor (a gentle understated performance from John Bromley), provides tacit evidence that memory of horror still lingers. But is there smoke without fire? Even he raises the question and father Matthew does his own self-searching.

This is a play that is forcefully felt and I found it engrossing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton