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Good Night Out Presents

The Sleepers Den


Written by Peter Gill


Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher


Riverside Studios


 28 September – 16 October 2010








A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

It’s a moot bond, the one between theatre and entertainment. Some claim theatre has a duty to entertain, others a duty to educate and others still a duty to be true to life, and it is those in this third category that will feel most pressed to invoke The Sleepers Den as a valuable example to their argument - it’s great theatre, but not great fun. With its strained silences, hopeless monotony and relentless tension-cum-asphyxiation, the play is an uncompromising portrayal of the despair of ‘real life’. I can’t say I enjoyed watching the performance, because only a sadist could, but as a rugged piece of straight, brutal, clear-lensed theatre, it’s difficult to top.

The plot offers the tri-generational Shannon family of Butetown, Cardiff in 1955, and their pained attempts to avoid depression as they whine their way through a poverty-riddled domestic life. They are accompanied in their cheerless home by the morose but earnest Frank, Joan Shannon’s brother, the pathetic but forgiving debt collector Mr Blake, and the nauseating religious do-gooder, Mary.  Joan is the master of the unkempt household, where the central feature is the sick-bed of her moaning mother, Old Mrs Shannon, who never leaves the stage. Joan’s daughter, Maria, displays her boredom by playing the irritating and irritable neglected brat whose dearth of received love is expertly exhibited by Ellen Ceri Lloyd. As Joan falls further into debt, and Frank works secret extra shifts in the hope of an answer to their crisis, the household becomes a battleground in which Joan explodes her frustration onto the furniture, not least her inanimate, unconscious mother.

The play is an exercise in rigid atmosphere, with no music or background sound, except in the opening and closes of scene; its arid landscape absorbs any sense of comfort from both the characters and the audience. There’s the odd comic touch, such as when the grandmother’s snores drown out the solemn group prayer, but essentially this play depicts the lifeless strain of a woman’s paralysis between her deranged mother and her demanding daughter – and accurately enough, there’s not much to laugh about. Gill’s writing ekes out the frustration caused by idiosyncratic, inbred conversation which ostensibly explains so little about the character’s feelings, while implicitly revealing so much. It’s nauseating to watch, but that’s its intention, and Joan’s cataclysmic breakdown in Act III is as much a physical release for herself as it is a psychological release for the very patient audience.

The acting in the production is excellent, and it has to be, as there’s s so little action or event to hide behind. Each of the female leads has pitched their character as accurately as if they had truly grown up in the family; there’s no distance between the personalities, they live in the same communal space without relent, and one begins to wonder whether in the name of good theatre Adam Spreadbury-Maher actually locked the three women in a similar cell for the weeks prior to the run. From the moment Wynfydd Chase’s Old Mrs Shannon taunts her daughter with a furrowed brow in the opening scene, the relationship feels lifelong. Another directorial masterpiece is the evocative mirroring of actions between daughter, mother and granddaughter. Joan copies her own mother’s fake death tease as she slumps like a ragdoll in her chair to avoid the pestering of Maria, and Maria copies her mother by sitting back on her feet during the laborious prayer. It is touches like these that reveal the sadness of the circular universe the characters inhabit - daughter copies mother on the march towards death.

It is in the final act that the show really proves its mettle. Gill becomes Shakespeare as Charlotte Moore becomes one with Joan Shannon and fires into a soliloquy of madness that enables her to enact her frustration. It is here that Elspeth Morrison’s expert dialect coaching, which is seamless throughout, excels, ensuring that Moore never misses a syllable despite the onset of her crippling rage. The set becomes her snow globe - once a perfect, open plan arrangement of mirrors, mantle piece and dressers, now, a barricaded anger-pit of broken teacups and ripped up voucher books. Julia Berndt’s set which feels so spacious as you wander into the surprisingly vast Studio 3 at Riverside begins to shrink from the moment you notice the women already present on stage. The openness of the stage plan cruelly parodies the claustrophobia of the household, and the fully furnished homestead mocks its harrowing lack of true homeliness.

This is a show which sheds great insight on the psychological detriment of domestic imprisonment; the characters feel real, human and perilously close to the rim of death. But it is no mystery why this is not the most popular spectacle for a Friday night, as it only provides something for the weekend if you’re planning to visit the hopeless life of a relative in an understaffed care home. Nevertheless, it is an admirably stalwart, if not ironic choice from the Good Night Out team at and deserves to be treated with patience, attention and awe. This production of The Sleeper’s Den is a must for the theatre die-hard; a hard death for those who want comic relief to be the main attraction.



Box Office: 020 8237 1111 /

Riverside Studios
Crisp Road
London W6 9RL

Tuesday – Saturday at 7.45pm, Sunday at 3.00pm

Tickets: £15/£13; £14/£12






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