Theatre company Clean Break come with a singular mission: “to keep the subject of women in prison on the cultural radar, helping to reveal the damage caused by the criminal justice system” on not just those incarcerated but their friends, families and partners.

Their latest production in collaboration with National Theatre is Dixon & Daughters, a work which explores the corrosive power of secrets and the corrupting effect of guilt in modern day Bradford. Written by Deborah Bruce and directed by Róisín McBrinn, this ensemble play opens with Bernie returning to the family home with her mother Mary fresh who is fresh out of New Hall Prison. Julie (Bernie’s sister) has broken up with her partner and her son is sleeping on the streets while daughter Ella is back from university on a “reading week” but with no intention of going back. Behind each of these situations is the story of a man who – in means varying in subtlety and method – have emotionally and physically abused the women in their lives.

Bruce doesn’t pull her emotional punches but neither does she pack in too many surprising plot lines. Where she succeeds beautifully is in developing her characters and changing the way we feel about them. Our initial sympathy for Mary – torn between defending her now-dead husband and living for her children – is twisted inside out by the end. Conversely, we start out seeing recovering alcoholic Julie and that of her stepsister Briana (whose testimony put away Mary) as the villains of the piece before realising the horrors they have faced.

McBrinn pushes this single-act play along at a pace, using Kat Heath’s set of a cutaway house to allow us to monitor multiple situations at once. The daytime scenes alternate with the spooky atmosphere of the brief night-time interludes as the text goes between sharp humour and deft plotting that occasionally sinks into melodrama.

Having the most well known name here (Liz White of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes) play the linchpin character Bernie is a savvy if obvious move but Bruce gives her little depth. Apart from spraying out witty nicknames and descriptions, she’s there to be the weathervane turned this way and that as events come to a head. Bruce has a wonderful ear for banter as seen in the back and forth exchanges between Bernie and the similarly underdeveloped Leigh (Posy Sterling).

Dixon & Daughters is not the easiest of watches but its very human story demands the attention throughout.

Dixon & Daughters continues at National Theatre until 10 June.

Photo credit: Helen Murray