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BWW Reviews: DENIAL, The Kings Head Theatre, May 23 2012

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As London steamed in 2012's first burst of summer, the tight space at the back of the King's Head on bustling Upper Street was not an overly enticing prospect. But a critic must er... suffer for his er... art. so in I plunged. It was to prove the right decision.

On a bleak set comprising a rectangular stage with two orange polyurethane chairs of the kind I last saw in the dole offices of the early 80s, Sir Arnold Wesker's Denial is an intense 90 minutes of theatre from beginning to (almost) end. At the heart of the play are three inter-related ideas: how science can be corrupted by charlatanism; how lives can be corrupted by expectations and hopes that go unrealised; and how truth can be corrupted by falsehood. Big Shakespearean themes - but, as one would expect of a dramatist with a record like Wesker's, they are presented through the prism of real, somewhat ordinary people, suddenly sent tumbling down a rabbit hole into a dystopia ruled by a woman as malevolent as The Queen of Hearts.

Jenny, her marriage and business having collapsed, drifts into the care of therapist Valerie who slowly, and systematically, convinces her that her disintegrated self-esteem is rooted in child sex abuse, buried, but recoverable, in her memory. As Jenny falls under the spell of therapist Valerie, the "memories" (replete with inconsistencies) tumble out and the accusations spit like fat from too hot a pan. The bombshell hits the hitherto typical middle class nuclear family with a devastating impact. The escape route from the prison of a philosophy that provides a rebuttal for every question, is unclear and paved with pain.

Since Denial premiered in 2000, daytime television has pandered to voyeurs of emotional breakdown with an endless parade of dysfunctional families, so director Adam Spreadbury-Maher had to demand performances from his cast that revealed the depth of their trauma without toppling into parody. He gets that from Clare Cameron, whose damaged Jenny teeters on The Edge of rage at all times and just once externalises it physically, violently, frighteningly. We catch a glimpse the woman she once was in a touching scene with her lawyer sister, played with cool detachment by Shelley Lang, and again, ever so briefly, in a meeting with her mother, Stephanie Beattie, a decent everywoman clinging on to the old certainties of the mother-daughter relationship.

The play can only work if we believe in the power of the therapist. Sally Plumb captures the seductive combination of charisma, learning (albeit of dubious provenance) worn lightly and a quasi-religious devotion to an ideology that drives her to convert unbelievers - we fear her power as we recoil at her ruthlessness. Identified as the villain, she is contrasted with the principal victim, Jenny's father, whom Nicholas Gecks invests with a high-minded nobility, as his commitment to his family never wavers through the shitstorm of accusations.

Based on a true story, and, through the introducton of a TV documentary maker, shown to be anything but a unique set of experiences, the play does not offer a neat resolution to its conflicts, but the final scene underlines the play's underpinning principle - that despite all the horrors unleashed by Jenny's accusations, speaking the unvarnished truth is the only solution. 

Denial continues into June at The King's Head Theatre.


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