Two Women

Martina Cole, adapted for the stage by Patrick Prior
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Production photo

Martina Cole is the very successful author of sixteen novels. I haven't read any of them but if this stage adaptation, being premiered at Stratford, is any indication, they are real page-turners, rooted in research and her own experience.

She presents us here with two women who share a cell in Holloway prison. Both have been convicted of murdering their husbands and both are waiting for their appeals to be heard. One is educated middle-class woman Matty who despised her husband, the other Susan, a battered wife from the East End, whom she appears to supportively befriend. As the legal process for both of them moves forward we follow Susan's story in flashback from a childhood of sexual abuse by her father, through the trials of her marriage to Barry, a man cannot keep his penis in his pants and is unfaithful from their wedding night, to the facts about his death.

There is no dramatisation of Matty's story, though she tells it herself in outline. Laura Howard plays her with restraint and no false histrionics but has little chance to explore her psychosis. The second woman of the title could as easily be Roselle, who runs a private club and becomes first Barry's boss and then his mistress, another stark contrast to Susan for, though coming from a similar background, she has pulled herself up by the straps of her elegant high heels and is never going to let a man get the upper hand.

The tightly packed plot does not leave much space for subtlety but both Cathy Murphy as Susan and Sally Oliver as Roselle give stunning performances that make you warm to them. From the moment when Barry, the looker who catches every woman's eye, makes his first move on her and she asks, 'Why me? I ain't pretty?' you can't help but feel for Susan. 'Because you've got fantastic tits,' is not exactly a boost for her low self esteem but she's a pushover. When, having made her pregnant, he proposes marriage you think he may not be such a bad sort and Marc Bannerman gives him flashes of apparent sincerity so that you can almost see what Roselle sees in him.

Sophie Cosson is moving as Susan’s eldest daughter, already in danger of becoming one part of a repeated pattern. This is a gritty story that has some savage twists towards the end, but there is humour here too in its feisty vitality, including a priest with a powerful punch. A salt-of-the-earth quality about the loyalty of Susan’s mates and a reality about the fecklessness of those for whom a quick thrill comes before friendship steer it away from the television soap cliché (of which many of this cast have past experience).

At first Susan’s parents (Victoria Alcock and Michael Bertenshaw), he having just blown three grand of someone else’s money on the horses, do seem an exaggeration but Ryan Romain’s production makes even them believable. The many scenes move quickly forward and backward in time with the help of Yannis Thavoris’s sets and costumes which cleverly suggest both different dates as well as different places. Susan, however, stays always in the clothes in which we first meet her, at an interview with her lawyer – even for her wedding keeping the track-suit trousers and striped top of her prison garb – until suddenly smartly dressed for her appeal she becomes almost a different woman.

The men here are all pretty ghastly - even Susan's lawyer is a bit of a wimp - though the lawyers are the weakest part of this production. Matty's high-powered expensive female advocate who espouses good causes seems there to make a point but it one that is unclear. Elsewhere there are some lovely touches - like the fact that middle-class Matty can get prison officers to provide her alcohol or the genuine regard that another PO shows for Susan.

Until 20th March 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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