“We could get the girls round for a game of kerplunk”
I’m a big fan of crime fiction but somehow Martina Cole has passed me by: none of my book-sharing buddies ever press her work into my hands, the TV adaptations didn’t grab me and the previous two Cole stage adaptations failed to tempt me to Theatre Royal Stratford East. But TRSE are clearly happy with how they went and it seems to be turning into an annual event there, so this year one can take in a version of her first novel, Dangerous Lady.
Cole seems to occupy similar ground, if not subject matter, to the Jilly Coopers and Jackie Collins of the world, the story has an epic sweep over several decades but an intimate focus in the struggles and self-empowerment of a ballsy lady. Here it is Maura Ryan, born into a family of gangsters but determined to do the right thing by avoiding the family business. An ill-advised liaison with a cop ends up in pregnancy but he swiftly departs and the subsequent back alley abortion leaves her broken-hearted, infertile and hardened to the world. She then joins her brothers and together they come to conquer gangland, but at considerable sacrifice.
Patrick Prior has adapted the story for the stage, as he did with the previous two, with a great deal of condensing of plot and conflation of characters, but there’s still a hell of a lot to get through and so the narrative rips along. Or rather, it would if it could.
The production is largely crippled by the sluggishness that comes from the design. Jean-Marc Puissant’s set uses a double revolve which moves at an inexplicably slow pace as we wind from scene to scene but director Lisa Goldman does little to cover this, indeed her actors frequently just dash off-stage. Consequently, this makes the transitions rather laborious as time and time again, we watch props move slowly round an empty stage, where a bit more directorial flair might have used these opportunities in a more inventive manner.
Matters aren’t helped by a performance style which repeatedly tends to the overstated and overwrought. Cole’s story and Prior’s adaptation whips through the decades so quickly that there’s little time for any real characterisation to come through with the supporting players who often appear for the briefest of moments, so the broadest of brushes are applied to ensure we’re left in no doubt as to whether this is a “GAY!” or “FOREIGN!” character, or else emotions are broadcast with a clumsy hamminess – “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” (the response to finding a head in a box).
At the centre of the play though, there is interesting work which goes some way to redeeming the production. Claire-Louise Cordwell invests Maura with a core of inner steel, which means her shift from good girl to hardened gangster isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might imagine. James Clyde’s gay head of the family, her brother Michael, combines fraternal charm with his implacable professional demeanour to icy effect and Veronica Quilligan spits and snarls with the roughest humour as their embittered mother, who of course is not above taking back-handers whilst despairing of her children’s activities.
But as with so many of these authors, we’re expected to root for the central character, empathise with her plight in ploughing her own way through a patriarchal society, and to do so here is to endorse violence, murder, arson, robbery, all in the name of making money. There’s not even a decent love story as Paul Woodson’s cop, who was apparently the love of Maura’s life, reappears for too brief a time for them to work on their barely-there chemistry, and the note of redemption on which the story ends leaves quite a sour taste.
Perhaps I’d feel differently if I was more familiar with Cole’s writing, but I doubt it. In a post-Gomorrah world, the glamorisation of gang life just feels dated and wrong-headed, no matter how well performed by Cordwell.