Thea Sharrock's production of Peter Gill's The Sleepers Den [sic] concludes her inaugural season as artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse. As a Royal Court director in the 1960s, Gill was largely responsible for rediscovering D.H. Lawrence as a playwright, and his own first work (dating from 1969) shows a strong Lawrentian influence.
Gill, like Lawrence, sets his play among his home-town working class, in this case around the docks of Cardiff. We see only the living room of the Shannon family's (we presume) two-up, two-down terraced house in an area scheduled for demolition and redevelopment: old Mrs Shannon, looking nearly two decades older than her 58 years, is semi-bedridden in the room, while her daughter Joan ("Mrs Shannon" although she never married), son Frank and granddaughter Maria bustle around her. Although the dramatic catalyst is the calling-in of Joan's debts to the "club", the finance agency to whom she owes repayments for clothes purchases and loans, it is plain that it is simply the relentless grind of making ends at least look as if they meet that has taken its toll on her. What we see is, in effect, a mental breakdown among people who could not afford the luxury of breakdowns. Joan grows increasingly distracted, eventually barricading herself into the room, alternately chattering disconnectedly, threatening her mother and watching her own actions with strange, detached comments of "I did that".
The piece does not have a dramatic arc as such: it starts low and sinks lower at a steady gradient. Over its uninterrupted hour and a half, it simply lets us piece together the various passing references to social and economic circumstances, to build up a picture of a reality far removed from the imagined golden age of urban community in our relatively recent past. Sharrock and her cast of six simply get on with the decline, playing the characters rather than the culture. Thus, Frank's passing pangs of conscience about keeping his overtime payments to himself are not played by Paul Wyett as a grand psychological crisis, but as part of a society where it was accepted that men would drink away their working woes rather than give extra housekeeping money. Maria Pride brings the same detailed power to Joan's disintegration as she did in the much younger role of Cindy in last year's national tour of Patrick Jones's Everything Must Go.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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