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House of horrors

Brid Brennan as Mary. Photos by Helen Murray. 

Bríd Brennan told David Hennessy about Dixon and Daughters and returning to the National Theatre where she was part of the original Dancing at Lughnasa cast while it is being performed again.

Tony Award- winning actress Bríd Brennan is back at the National Theatre in the new play Dixon and Daughters.

Dixon and Daughters sees Bríd Brennan play Mary.

She is joined on the cast by Andrea Lowe (DCI Banks, Sherwood and Ken Loach’s Route Irish) and Liz White (Life on Mars, Ackley Bridge) as her daughters Julie and Bernie.

When Mary comes home after some time away, she finds her daughters and granddaughter Ella, played by Yazmin Kayani, concealing themselves to spring a birthday like surprise on Mary to welcome her home.

But Mary is far from in the mood.

She is not returning home after a holiday overseas, she has been in prison for three months.

What’s more, there is another member of the family, stepdaughter Tina- who now calls herself Brianna and whose evidence put Mary away.

It is clear from the start that something has gone on in this family and whatever it was started long before Mary’s sentence.

However, if there have been secrets swept under the rug, someone will literally push the sofa out of the way and pull the rug back to reveal years of incestuous child abuse carried out by Mary’s late husband.

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Bríd told The Irish World: “It goes to quite a dark place.

“There isn’t a lot of redemption for my character but it’s still psychologically a fascinating character.

“That does also make it demanding to play.”

Deborah Bruce’s play comes from 18 months working with Clean Break, the theatre company dedicated to women with experience of the criminal justice system.

“Yesterday, there were quite a few Clean Break members at the show.

“I met some of them and I loved hearing what they thought.

“They were inspired by it and they were moved by it.

“They thought it was funny but they were very exorcised and excited by the play and those responses are great.”

Are those responses more important than any review? “Well, they certainly know and they recognise so much of it and it’s very gratifying to hear those responses.

“Deborah has crafted it so beautifully, that it doesn’t come across as primarily an issue play, but the issues are all there and very strong, and very thought provoking.

“And certainly the questions are there to be asked.

Brid with Yazmin Kayani who plays her grand daughter Ella.

“And like the story of the play itself, it all needs to be in the open.

“I’d always wanted to work with Clean Break actually.

“When I first came to London, I lived in Finsbury Park and sometimes the bus I would take would pass Holloway (prison).

“I used to think about the women in there, ‘I wish I could do something’, and then much later I heard about Clean Break.

“I think the work they do is invaluable, inspiring and quite extraordinary.”

The play has been received with excellent reviews.

“I’m really delighted with the incredible listening that’s going on in the theatre.

“You really get a sense of that, as an actor, sometimes just people really listening and sometimes responding.

“And very often, the laughter is very heartening and that’s a real bonus with this play given the issues and the subject matter.”

Although it’s subject matter is dark, there are many laughs in Dixon and Daughters that come from how the women talk to each other.

“There is so much laughter, there’s wonderful comedy in it.

“And it’s not necessarily gratuitous comedy, it’s part of a way people speak.

“Comedy is a way of survival, I suppose.

“And certainly I think Deborah Bruce has really captured that brilliantly.”

Dixon and Daughters is directed by Róisín McBrinn who Bríd describes as having a “gorgeous sense of humour”.

Róisín, from Dublin, was Joint Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Clean Break for eight years, and only stepped down last year to become Artistic Director of The Gate Theatre in Dublin.

And although set in the north of England, some of Dixon and Daughters’ dialogue could easily be from an Irish play. Some of Julie and Bernie’s exchanges or Mary’s sarcastic replies feel like something from Derry Girls.

“It very definitely could be (Irish), and you get people coming in saying, ‘My mother says all those things’.

“But so much of that is recognisable in the interaction of the family, and very recognisable I think, for a lot of people, will be the dynamics of family.

“That’s a very important part of the play, I think.

“This is in the present day we’re looking at the dynamics of family but we know that there’s a past that eventually comes to light as it should do.

“Then we can really see how those dynamics came about due to the influence of that person who is not on stage and is no longer alive.

“It’s beautifully captured by Deborah in her writing.

Leigh is in the sitting room while Julie and Bernie are asking their mother why she has invited a down and out to stay. 

“When I read it I just thought, ‘This is a beautifully written play and it’s a very important play’.

“It opens up so many issues and looks at issues that are very current, always have been, and very important.”

The play sees Bríd’s character have to face her part in her family’s ugly history, but she is also a victim.

“Ultimately you have to see her as that.

“Because otherwise all too easily, she could just become the monstrous mother and that’s a trope you see so often in theatre, just a ‘monstrous mother’.

“But she’s not that. She has been brutalised.”

The play is presented on the most incredible set that, like a doll’s house, displays what is going on upstairs and in back rooms as well as what is happening in the sitting room.

“It’s terrific,” Bríd says of it.

“That’s obviously what Deborah had in mind, that the house was a big character in the play.

“There were the women and then there was this house which holds all that history.

“When I saw those images I thought, ‘Well, she’s achieved that in all sorts of ways’.”

This is demonstrated by Leigh (Posey Sterling), a down and out and former cellmate of Mary’s who Mary invites to stay.

Of course, Leigh knows nothing of the family’s horrific history but can not sleep in a bedroom where abuse occurred.

“That room is a toxic space.”

Brianna, formerly known as Tina, may seem like a comedic character on her entrance.

Played by Alison Fitzjohn, she speaks in self- help mantras which she also drills into Julie.

However, as the play goes on the audience finds out the self- help mantras are part of how a damaged person is trying to repair herself.

“It’s a bit of a decoy really to have her being so funny.

“She’s obviously done a whole programme helping her get out of her addiction and helping her move forward.

“That’s played very beautifully and with comic effect, but she goes somewhere else and she does it so wonderfully.

“Alison takes you somewhere I think you didn’t realise you were going to go.

“Deborah has created that very beautifully and Alison has risen to it fantastically.”

Brianna storms past Mary into the house.

But Brianna is not the only damaged character in the play. Only Mary’s granddaughter is spared by her mother Bernie never, ever leaving her alone with the abuser in the family.

“The only one who is probably not damaged is Ella, the granddaughter, and I find it very moving when Liz does her speech about trying to protect her.

“I find that very moving about how she, in reaction to the childhood she had, was protecting her daughter and making sure she didn’t have that sort of a life.”

Bernie went out of her way to ensure Ella was out of harm’s reach.

Bríd is coincidentally returning to the National Theatre while they simultaneously are staging a play she is well known for.

Bríd was Agnes in the original Dancing at Lughnasa.

She would play the part on Broadway winning her Tony Award for the Brian Friel play in 1992.

Has she seen the new production that stars Siobhan McSweeney, Ardal O’Hanlon, Alison Oliver and Tom Vaughan- Lawlor? “I’m delighted to say I managed to get in to see it.

“I had a little window and I seized it because I didn’t want to miss it because surprisingly, I’ve hardly seen that play.

“All these years later, I was delighted to see it and to be brought back to that world.

“It was so beautifully done by a great cast.

“Lovely to hear Brian Friel’s language again and his beautiful story.”

Bríd’s former role is now played by Louisa Harland of Derry Girls.

“She was really gorgeous,” Bríd says of her performance.

“She did a beautiful job.

“I thought they all did. They were all great.

“I was enraptured.”

Dancing at Lughnasa, the story of the five Mundy sisters, first came to the National Theatre in 1991.

“It was a great time.

“It was a very special time.

“From the time that we opened that first production in the Abbey in 1990, it was like a non-stop two years.

“We finished March 1992.

“We were family.”

What is it like to be back at The National Theatre 32 years later and to see a new company doing it? “It was funny because sometimes when I’d hear their call some part of you would think, ‘That’s me’.

“It’s funny how those little ties are still there.

“I just love the play. I love Brian Friel’s work.

“The summer after Brian died, we went up to Glenties to read that big first scene in the kitchen.

“Myself and Bríd Ní Neachtain were there and Rosaleen Linehan were there.

“Marion O’ Dwyer came and played Maggie because Anita (Reeves) sadly had died just two weeks before.

“And then a friend of mine, Dorothy Duffy from Donegal, came and played Chrissy.

“We went to The Laurels where those women had lived.

“It was such a wonderful story.”

Although it is full of joy, Dancing at Lughnasa also has an overwhelming sadness to it.

“That is the story.

“It’s part of life and it’s how you remember it.

“From the minute Tom Vaughan- Lawlor came down to the stage and started speaking, I felt very safe in this production and I felt I was hearing Brian Friel’s language.

“I felt myself just brought into it, just lured in and captured by it.”

Dancing at Lughnasa is the story of five sisters who are all unmarried while one of them, Chrissy, is a single mother.

“It’s interesting because as we were coming out for the interval I heard a woman say, ‘Oh, from what I know of 30s Ireland, this would never have happened’.

“So that person said it is through ‘rose tinted spectacles’.

“And I thought, ‘You can’t just say that about that world. You don’t know enough about it’.

“Because people did quite extraordinary things in the face of the rules, the status quo.

“They did.

“People could be incredibly defiant and brave and Brian describes his own aunts as those brave Glenties women and there is a courage in the way they live.”

As previously mentioned, Bríd won a Tony for her work as Agnes. She has also been nominated for the Olivier Award three times.

Is that Tony something she is very proud of? “Yes, (but) I wasn’t there.

“I was working on a television series in Scotland so I wasn’t released to go there.

“But I was delighted for my family in particular.

“It was great, but it was great to play it on Broadway.

“I have to say that was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

“I had a great time and to be in a play that was so well received was very exciting.”

But Bríd’s Dancing at Lughnasa journey did not end there.

She would reprise her role as Agnes for the 1998 film starring Meryl Streep.

The only member of the stage cast to be retained for the screen adaptation, Bríd would win an IFTA award for it.

“That was interesting.

“Because she’s such a quiet, internalised character and there’s a whole inner life obviously.

“But parts are difficult to play when you’re quietly sitting there knitting, to actually let a theatre audience into that world.

“She’s so still and quiet.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is difficult’.

“But I thought if I was doing it for camera, that would be easier.

“But then after those two years of doing it onstage- and then of course you have the magic of the dance, the expressiveness of dance which I thought was pure magic and Brian’s master stroke that you are able to physically express so much of that.

“I thought it would be easier but I had done it in theatre so long.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to be able to get back to that’.

“It was fine. It was good.

“I enjoyed doing that as well and enjoyed particularly being able to realise the beauty of the countryside.

“We filmed the exteriors at a little cottage just above the source of the Liffey and when it came time to us leaving I thought, ‘I’m not leaving, this is my house now’.

“Because I’d be very happy to live somewhere like that and I enjoyed that aspect of taking it out of the theatre into a landscape.

“I always enjoy that, I particularly enjoy that about cinema: The landscape you find yourself in or can do, particularly in Ireland.”

Bríd has been long based in London but says a part of her heart remains in her native Belfast.

Bríd’s screen work includes the films Maeve, Anne Devlin, Brooklyn and Shadow Dancer which she would win another IFTA for.

More recently she has been in the Irish language film Doineann and is currently part of BBC’s day time drama Hope Street.

She has been nominated for Oliviers three times more recently for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman.

Something that was a particular highlight was doing Beckett’s All That Fall.

“I enjoyed it enormously.

“That was quite an experience and just great to get that language in your mouth.

“I did a number of Synge’s plays, and I love Synge.

“I did Playboy with Druid years ago and also one of the highlights of my career- I could have left happily after this- We went with Druid across to Inishmaan where Synge had got that story of Playboy- Where in fact the islanders had sheltered the man.

“That was where Synge got that story.

“We were the first people to ever do a production of the play on the island.

“That was extraordinary for me.”

One final word about Dixon and Daughters. Bríd hopes it will get another life beyond its current run because she believes it is important that the important play is seen by as wide an audience as possible.

“I think it definitely should.

“It should be seen by as many people and in other parts of the country: Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham.

“I think it’s important.

“It should be seen everywhere.”

Dixon and Daughters runs at the National Theatre until 10 June.

For more information and to book, click here.

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