A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!







Nicholas Gecks as Matthew in DENIAL

Photo by Christopher Tribble


by Arnold Wesker


Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Mather


King’s Head Theatre


15 May – 19 June 2012



Denial is twenty one scenes and ninety minutes of pure theatre. Produced within a traverse, adversarial configuration, interspersed with sharp tableaux, its dramatic effect is startling. Written in 1997, and first produced at the Bristol Old Vic, 2000, it receives its London premiere at The King’s Head, Islington, as part of the Wesker at Eighty celebrations. Yet the question uppermost is: why has it taken so long to reach the capital?

In an earlier interview Wesker hints: ‘I seem to be someone that people want to put down. It seems to be a sense of hostility towards my joy and ebullience.’ One of the young angry brigade of British Theatre in the 1950s, Wesker is bemused by this antipathy. Yet this idea finds a strange echo in Denial: ‘there exists a certain kind of mean mind that hates the sight of happiness,’ as Matthew tries to make sense of what has happened to him.
The subject of Denial is False Memory Syndrome – also known as Recovered Memory Syndrome in a positive spin - in which thirty year old Jenny accuses her father and her grandfather of sexual abuse as a child, and then charges her mother as being complicit in this.

Yet the play is not about whether the abuse occurred or not – indeed its conclusion is open-ended - it is about manipulation, particularly manipulation of position, and universally, language. Never have the simple words ‘if’ ‘come’ and the adjunct ‘pet’ been more compelling or dangerous. The empty soundings of somebody else’s words so obvious, as Jenny exhorts Abigail: ‘your inner child needs peace.’

Valerie Morgan, ‘dangerous-bitch’ therapist, comes across as a ‘tell it like it is’ human being. Her mix of pragmatism and authority seems on the surface to be the right approach in dealing with dysfunctional, angry and confused Jenny. Yet as the intercut scenes between the sessions, lasting over two years, her own TV interview with producer Sandy Cornwall, and Jenny’s anguished and bewildered parents show, Morgan’s professional experience with sex abuse victims has left an indelible impression.

Wesker’s highly structured writing packs a punch: graphic, visceral, it has a poetry and rhythm which is compulsive. Jenny’s anger and rage at the beginning of the piece (a wholly convincing Clare Cameron) intercuts as a voice over to suggest an answering machine, or the more graphic accusations replayed over and over in her parents’ minds - a theatrical idea copied in the home movie footage at the beginning which uses fast-forward and rewind techniques. This is intense, yet highly theatrical, made more striking because of director Adam Spreadbury-Mather’s claustrophobic setting, and the sharp, snap lighting design of Richard Williamson.

Less successful is the character balance of Ziggy Landsman and Sandy Cornwall, though the performances of both John Bromley and Maggie Daniels were very good. The former seems to be an ideological foil in providing real memories of his time in the concentration camps. In Jenny’s voice he hears the ‘sounds of screaming.’ While the later seems to have access to Valerie Morgan, Matthew and his family – no context is provided, leading ultimately to a confrontation.  

The real stuff of Denial is the destructive attempt to sever familial bonds. The portrayal of Jenny’s parents by Nicholas Gecks and Stephanie Beattie is heartfelt, particularly in the vindication of the sensory pleasure between parent and child, as is the sibling rivalry between Jenny and Abigail - a very strong performance by Shelley Lang. Sally Plumb is an unsettling presence as the ominous Valerie.  

Denial is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a must-see. Wesker produces towering scales of invective infused with a potent, percussive poetry.


7.15 pm Sundays 3.15: Wednesday to Sunday but check listings
£15 - £19.50; £25 for seat reservation
King’s Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
London N1 1QN
Box Office: 0207 478 6160

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