Martina Cole’s novel adapted by Patrick Prior
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Martina Cole’s Dangerous Lady was the first of her bestselling novels set in London’s criminal underworld and it is the third to be adapted for the stage at the Theatre Royal, so clearly they have popular appeal.
It is not exactly high culture but an audience has always loved a villain and the family in this story are thieves, murderers and gangsters. They have remarkable similarities to the notorious Krays (who at one time hob-nobbed with Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop), even to elder brother Michael here being gay.
This dangerous lady is the youngest child, at first innocent teenager Maura, though she knows the family business. She meets a nice guy at a dance hall who just happens to be a copper. When the Old Bill find out who his girl is and her brothers discover who she’s dating that’s when things go wrong.
Lisa Goldman’s stark production is packed with dramatic moments, a difficult birth, shootings, beatings, back-street abortion, bullion robbery, and passionate love scenes. It is staged against a smoky dark background with only simple furniture a neon sign and sweeping searchlights to relieve it, but supported by Matt McKenzie’s effective sound design, which makes good use of popular music as the years pass, and carefully lit by Mike Gunning to show just what is needed.
Designer Jean-Marc Puissant makes crime seem glamorous only in the men’s sharp suits and Maura’s turn out. To speed the action between its changing locations he has brought in a revolve which the production uses effectively when the director makes scenes overlap but which does begin to feel especially repetitive.
The cast don’t shirk at playing it to the hilt. Claire-Louise Cordwell’s Maura, developing from the ebullient young girl into the coolly calculating killer is always watchable and plays her traumas so effectively that she retains sympathy even as she hardens.
James Clyde gives another strong performance as Michael. Effusive over his “Princess” sister, revealing a little of himself with his boyfriend (Tom Turner), there is a complex character here but is not explored. Veronica Quilligan makes their tough but devoutly Catholic mother a woman you can believe can dominate her violent sons.
As policeman Terry (too easily following orders in dropping Maura), Paul Woodson doesn’t get much chance to create a real character. He is supposed to feel strongly about the law but acquiesces later in what becomes a “happy” ending. Or is this all part of the implied criticism of the police force in a period of bribery and cover-ups?
Cole leaves the audience to judge her characters; this woman gets away with it. She seems to want us to admire Maura as a woman making a place for herself in a man’s world, but she also makes some clear points about the way in which the criminal world infiltrated politics, exploited housing shortages and then moved on from protection rackets and Rackman-like rackets to the wider worlds of finance and Docklands development.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton