Wednesday 24 October 2012

Dangerous Lady - Review

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London


Adapted by Patrick Prior

Directed by Lisa Goldman

Claire-Louise Cordwell as Maura Ryan
Dangerous Lady is the most traditional of plays, mounted in a wonderfully traditional theatre. Martina Cole's first novel has been adapted for the Theatre Royal Stratford East by Associate Writer Patrick Prior who, in an age where crime novels are typically dramatised via film or television replete with clever camera angles and expensive explosions, has taken this tale of London's criminality in the late twentieth century and simply transformed it for one of London's most atmospheric stages. This play is a cracking yarn of old fashioned east-end values, villainy, violence and virtue.

Claire-Louise Cordwell is Maura Ryan, the femme fatale of the play's title. We follow her from birth, born into a family of Irish Catholic heritage. Her mother is a single parent matriarch, adored by her three sons and daughter and the theme of family loyalty and the consequences of betraying such commitment, runs through the play as through a stick of Brighton rock. The young Maura unwittingly falls in love with a rookie policeman, a relationship that is destined to be doomed whilst her siblings slowly build up an empire of organised crime across the city and the play tracks her over thirty years with neat socially historic nods to the illegality of abortion, the illicit widespread fundraising for and growth of, the IRA and an intolerance of homosexuality. Maura's brothers are characterisations of villains both factual and fabled. There are aspects of their life that echo the Kray Brothers and the emerging republican influence on London's gangland bears more than a passing resemblance to the crumbling of Harold Shand's empire in Barrie Keefe's The Long Good Friday (see weblink below). Director Lisa Goldman has her cast portray shootings, beatings and factory explosions in a manner that is convincing without ever being gory, her London very much a recognisable tableaux.

Cordwell's is a tour de force performance . On stage for almost the entire production, she carries the success of this story. Hers is the character that is the most defined by Prior and she brings an authentic humanity to the spectrum of Maura's emotions as she experiences love, loss, and anger as well as developing a ruthless controlling streak as she grows to command her brothers' empire. Her journey is physically tough, and the violation she suffers at the grubby hands of a bungling abortionist is harrowing to watch. Cordwell has her audience wincing at the pain she endures and cheering at her triumphs.

Veronica Quilligan is convincing as the sibling's mother, powerful yet, in later years, weary with grief and surprisingly vengeful. As eldest brother Michael, James Clyde is a watchable if somewhat two-dimensional hoodlum, his gay sexuality, coke habit, and menacing manner being a little cliched. In a haunting moment, Allyson Ava-Brown, playing several supporting roles in the story, sings an ethereally beautiful Amazing Grace at a family funeral.

Whilst act one of the play charts Maura's rise to power and is both credible and gripping, the second half, in which the story's various plot lines moves towards resolution can at times feel contrived. This may well be the corollary of editing Cole's original 500 page novel into one evening's entertainment.

The set is simple yet ingenious and with 48 scenes to accommodate, Jean-Marc Puissant's use of concentric revolves enables a diverse range of locations to be effectively and stylishly represented. Matt McKenzie's sound design, with background music suggesting the years passing and vocal and special effects, including a particularly authentic church echo, add to the production's ambience.

Martina Cole's work belongs in this east London setting. Her story with its classic themes of love, brutality and revenge makes for a grand evening of adult theatre.

Runs to November 17

 A lookback on The Long Good Friday

Photograph: Robert Day

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