Bristol Old Vic
Opened 17 May, 2000

As in the other sizeable recent British play about False Memory Syndrome, Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss, the "uncovered" accusations of child sexual abuse in Arnold Wesker's Denial culminate in a confrontation with the allegedly abusive father and take shape through the insidious manipulations of an agenda-laden (and, here, formally unqualified) therapist. Wesker, however, explains that this is part of the almost universal pathology of such cases. He introduces the character of a crusading journalist in order that she may predict for Jenny's parents the course that events will take and instruct them on the best way to handle the face-to-face session (to be umpired, naturally, by the therapist).

Denial is at its weakest when using such devices, whose nakedness Wesker cannot disguise. Jenny is given a younger sister who is a clever lawyer in order that this character may have a lengthy scene of verbal sparring with therapist Valerie; that this ends with no clear "victor" is at best tokenism, at worst unintentional underwriting on Wesker's part. An old family friend is introduced for a couple of brief scenes, described simply as a doctor but obviously serving to represent the "good therapist" in opposition to Valerie for heaven's sake, he wears a goatee and glasses, speaks with a mitteleuropäische accent and his name is a familiar form of Sigmund; how stereotypical can you get?

The central writing, though, is frequently wonderful. The most sustained arguments (as opposed to mere railings) against the suggestion of abuse come from Nicola Barber's bitter, cynical Jenny herself. They are, of course, not out-argued by Valerie, but rather overcome by what sounds for all the world like a cultish programming technique. "You make it sound like a religious revelation," remarks Jenny shortly before being won over; "In a way, it is," responds Valerie, before returning to her hypnotic, evangelical mantra, "Come! Come! Come!" As Valerie, Susan Tracy has a nice line in sardonic South Welshness, deploying poker-faced one-liners to leaven her subtle stratagems and never becoming explicitly doctrinaire; the notion of abuse is first introduced with the duplicitous words, "Another therapist might say..."

Jenny's mother Karen (Rosemary McHale) is, on the one hand, bluntly deployed by Wesker to dismiss all her husband's self-flagellating doubts as to how they might be responsible for their daughter's madness, but on the other brilliantly subverts the "prescribed" agenda of the final meeting with Jenny and Valerie. Jeremy Child, as the man whom Jenny repeatedly calls "Matthewfuckingfather", has a gloriously affecting climactic speech "confessing" to ordinary parent-child games and solicitude. Designer Tom Piper (whose own family appears in the opening "childhood" video) sets Valerie's consulting room within a white cuboid as the only three-dimensionally located space on the stage. Other locations are signified by slides of room décor upon that cuboid's outer walls; for us, literally, as for Jenny psychologically, everything outside Valerie's little realm is reduced to the unreality of a flat projection. The greatest praise for the play is that, at the final curtain on the night I saw it, before the applause could start, a hum of animated conversation ran all around the auditorium of Bristol's Old Vic; Denial gets people talking, all right.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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