In conventional stories of incest abuse, the narrative is an adult’s struggle to cope with memories of parental sexual abuse - abuse previously held captive in the subconscious. In Denial, playwright Arnold Wesker bases his compelling script on a real-life aberration, a phenomenon affecting thousands of families across the globe: coaxed by a psychotherapist, an individual invents memories of familial sexual molestation. In Wesker’s depiction, we observe the effects a false accusation has on the Young family, the investigations of a reporter and a dubious psychotherapist.

The production is a devastating example of the fallibility of memory and trust. The premise alone is titillating: Jenny Young (Clare Cameron) falsely recollects that her father Matthew (Nicholas Gecks), mother (Stephanie Beattie) and grandfather molested her as a child. As the play progresses the cast adopts their tormented roles as the deliberators of the unthinkable, defenders of the indefensible with due devastation. The scenario unfolds with harrowing execution and incites a palpable restlessness in the audience; we cannot begin to contemplate the ramifications and the characters themselves are also perpetually stunned. 

All actors explore the vicissitudes their characters encounter. Cameron arouses both dislike and intrigue as the bearer of the fatal, pointing finger. She shares an aptly nuanced relationship with on-stage sister Lang, who presented herself as a voice of reason, humour and defiance in the crumbling family unit. Maggie Daniels is fabulous as investigative reporter Sandy Cornwall, a magnanimous force balanced with eccentricity and compassion. Beattie and Gecks perform exceptionally as the wrecked mother and father. While all of the actors are provocative, the polished pair aptly perform their fraught relationships: torn apart, united in anguish, tender after confrontation.

The central character, strident and dubious therapist Valerie Morgan (Sally Plumb), is also the most complex. Morgan’s track-record of ascribing sexual abuse to a string of patients is frighteningly sinister. We know little of her intentions or any sense of reward she gains through her self-righteous duplicity. Plumb excellently plays the perturbing contradiction of a person who is both purporting charity and care, yet unnervingly aloof and contemptuous.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s direction physically represents the ambivalences and tensions suggested in the script. Eyes dart frantically across the stage as characters scrutinise each other as if hanging from an invisible mobile. Other noteworthy instances of direction are the courtroom-style interrogation of Valerie Morgan by Sandy Cornwall and the positioning of every character that spoke to the insidious psychotherapist.

Denial made me fearful of things I had never contemplated before: the deplorable ways trust relationships can be cultivated and betrayed; the implausibility of true recall of one’s own life and what it truly means to become struck dumb. Interspersed with stunning monologues, strong performances and convoluted crises, the show is assertive and urgent, eliciting contemplation and anxiety. A must-see show.

Denial, at King's Head, IslingtonStefan Nicolaou reviews Arnold Wesker's Denial at the King's Head Theatre.5