The Sleepers Den

Peter Gill
Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Ben Cooper for Good Night Out Presents
Peter Gill season
Riverside Studios
(2010)

The wide black box that is Studio 3 at the Riverside Studios is not a natural double for the cramped living room and adjoined kitchen of a poor-as-dust Welsh working-class family of The Sleepers Den but Julia Berndt's neat design manages to conjure an effective sense of the repressively confined space in which the Shannon family play out their shockingly limited lives. A defined space on the stage, set on a diagonal to the audience, forms the living room which also contains the double bed where the elderly grandmother languishes; behind it the small kitchen where her daughter, the near-agoraphobic younger Mrs Shannon, slaves over the stove; at far stage right is the space outside of the living area, where Mrs Shannon's sparky young daughter Maria hides in her bedroom, and where all the peripheral characters wait patiently for their turn on stage. With the living room defined by a clutter of furniture against every wall, it's a nice a way of representing how the family try to shore themselves up against the invasions of the outside world.

This uncompromisingly and quite devastatingly sad play is clever most of all, I think, in that it doesn't try to romanticise working-class family life. This is not a house whose door is always open, and this isn't a family who make do with their circumstances and take joy in at least having each other. Mrs Shannon lives in perpetual fear of what the wider world might hold for her; she describes herself as "nervy", which hardly begins to cover the state of desperate, barely controlled fear and desolation in which she passes her days. The household is her mother, her daughter and her brother; her daughter's father is absent in a way that makes us assume she was conceived illegitimately. Mrs Shannon barely leaves the house except to go to the shops; she does nothing but clean and cook and care for the basic needs of her family, but none of their emotional needs. She survives by exercising control over her surroundings, namely suppressing both her own emotions and those of her lively and affectionate daughter. There's also a vivid sense of her as a sort of sitting duck, always at home. unable to escape the visits of a well-meaning but fussy church representative, and a debt-collector, also a decent man but inevitably only ever the bringer of bad news.

With a slow sense of impending doom, we watch the family going about their daily lives, and Gill captures very well their comfortable rituals: their accustomed language with each other, that shorthand speech that families have. For a long time it seems as though the general lack of emotional warmth, and the worrying incapacity of the grandmother, might not be problems to cause their ruin. But then the family's one hope of financial salvation is taken away, and it becomes clear by what a thin thread Mrs Shannon has been hanging on.

Charlotte Moore is quite suberb in the part throughout - sitting in a sort of druggy stupor genially ignoring her daughter, or snapping at her brother as he comes home from work, eats and leaves again for the pub. But in the final breakdown scene she's something else: spiralling into helpless panic, unable to share the news of their ruin with anyone, crawling under her mother's bedsheets as though she would crawl back into her childhood if she could. Gill's language at this point has a disturbing, half-buried poetry to it: "I feel so dirty", she moans, "all the dirt in my hair, all the hairs on my head", as though every bit of her is superfluous.

The music, a base of deep mournful violins, also contributes to the sense that we're looking at something from a sort of distance; it's almost as though they're underwater. It's a story that's situated not in the present but not yet too far off in the sepia-tinged past, and Adam Spreadbury-Maher's production nicely captures this sense of the simultaneous immediacy of the story and its wider historical significance.

There's also good work from Wynvith Chase as the semi-lucid grandma, quite forceful when she jerks into occasional consciousness, and from Ceri Lloyd as young Maria, trying her best to be what society demands of her - we can foresee how her vivaciousness will be stamped out before long. As the representatives of the outside world, Mark Starr is also good as the sympathetic debt-collector, and Cler Stephens fine as the church representative who, aware of her comparative status, does her very best not to patronise the family but can't quite avoid it. The scene in which she leads Mrs Shannon and Maria in kneeling and reciting a string of Hail Marys for the older Mrs Shannon, and the two Shannons gradually drop to the floor in boredom and apathy as their guest maintains her utterly upright stance of faith, nicely encapsulates the family's knowledge of how little religious observance has ever done for them. It's not an easy story to watch, but it's horribly compelling; and a necessary glimpse, at the present time, into the lives of those living on the precarious edge of society's provision. The visceral experience of desperation has rarely been communicated so well.

Until 16th October

Corinne Salisbury