Theatre

Dixon and Daughters: Vital National Theatre production shows how trauma can echo through generations of women

But Deborah Bruce's brilliant new play – written following her time as Writer In Residence at Clean Break –also offers hope

Actress Bríd Brennan (Mary) sits on the sofa in Dixon and Daughters at the National Theatre.

Bríd Brennan (Mary) in Dixon and Daughters at the National Theatre. Image: Helen Murray

Dixon and Daughters is one family’s story of generational trauma as a result of male violence. Deborah Bruce’s new play – the first co-production between Clean Break, the women’s theatre company that works with women in the criminal justice system and to bring hidden stories to a wider audience, and the National Theatre – is powerful, poignant and peppered with sharp humour as it focuses on three generations of women, their pain compounded by recent interactions with the criminal justice system.

It begins with Mary (Bríd Brennan) returning home after three months in New Hall prison. She was jailed for her role in failing to protect stepdaughter Briana from abuse suffered decades ago at the hands of Mary’s now-dead husband.

Mary arrives home to two daughters and a granddaughter eager to look to the future. But when uncomfortable truths have been swept under the carpet for so long, they are going to come out somehow. And the return of Briana (played with righteous fury and real spark by Alison Fitzjohn) leads to two days and nights of fraught discussion and hard truths in the Dixon house.

Posy Sterling (Leigh) with Bríd Brennan (Mary), Liz White (Bernie) and Andrea Lowe (Julie) in Dixon and Daughters. Image: Helen Murray

“I kept my voice down for 37 years,” Briana says, when Mary objects to her having her say.

The damage and the trauma is gradually revealed, the impact on each woman different.

Mary has lived for decades in denial. She hides her profound guilt and sorrow, turning her anger outwards. She’s spiky, confrontational, but Brennan shows us the fragility and pain lurking, barely concealed, beneath the surface.

Andrea Lowe, as elder sister Julie, is trying to escape her own toxic relationship, looking to find peace in the bottom of a wine bottle, struggling to deal with everyday life. Liz White, as Bernie, attempts to hold the family together, despite being the youngest Dixon daughter. The impact on her of the abuse within the family is less immediately apparent. But it is still there.

Lines of real clarity and force punctuate the familial fighting, the banter and the everyday.

“I’ve been the most mature adult in this house since I was six-years-old,” says Bernie, while trying to keep her teenage daughter Ella (Yazmin Kayani) away from difficult details.

Meanwhile, Briana is on a quest for truth. “This house is my witness,” she says.

Mary’s prison pal Leigh (Posy Sterling, a Clean Break member since 2015, making a memorable National Theatre debut) crashes into the household to add further chaos and offbeat humour as the revelations and recriminations spiral.

Dixon and Daughters pulls no punches in its portrayal of the impact of male violence. But there is, crucially, hope. Deborah Bruce’s deft writing and fine performances bring the Dixon women and their hidden suffering slowly into the light. And through the most difficult conversations and confrontations, they gain crucial understanding.

The anger, the recrimination, the fury, should be aimed not at each other, but at the source of generations of misery. The man. The abuser. The father, the stepfather, the husband. Ray Dixon. The man who left a string of broken people behind with nowhere to direct their pain other than at each other when he died.

Through a short, sharp and sometimes shocking 90 minutes with no interval, Dixon and Daughters ratchets up the intensity and the heartbreak.

Informed by lived and learnt experience of trauma and abuse, incarceration and survival, Dixon and Daughters is a difficult watch. But this is vital theatre.

And if Deborah Bruce’s outstanding play tells us anything, it is that we cannot, we must not, look away.

Dixon and Daughters runs at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London until 10 June. Tickets are available here

Clean Break is a theatre company that transforms the lives of women who have experienced the criminal justice system or are at risk of entering it and produces ground-breaking plays with women’s voices at their heart.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Maggie & Me author Damian Barr: 'Today's Tories are far beyond Thatcher's darkest dreams'
Theatre

Maggie & Me author Damian Barr: 'Today's Tories are far beyond Thatcher's darkest dreams'

'Whose voices have the right to be heard?': Censorship of Black culture has existed for decades
Theatre

'Whose voices have the right to be heard?': Censorship of Black culture has existed for decades

Liz Carr: 'I was told all the time I wouldn't live to be old – and I believed it'
Liz Carr
Letter To My Younger Self

Liz Carr: 'I was told all the time I wouldn't live to be old – and I believed it'

Artist Rhiannon Faith: 'I refuse to live in a society where someone feels so alone they lose hope'
Rhiannon Faith, choreographer and artistic director of Rhiannon Faith Company
Dance

Artist Rhiannon Faith: 'I refuse to live in a society where someone feels so alone they lose hope'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know