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A CurtainUp Review
By Brian Clover
Gary Mitchell's new play is set amongst the criminals and paramilitaries of today's Northern Ireland. This is common enough territory for dramatists but Mitchell turns the spotlight on women, in particular the women's wing of the extreme Protestant Ulster Defence Association. Loyal Women is as tough and as intense a piece as you'd expect from the setting. These women are loyal in two senses: they profess political allegiance to the British monarchy and domestic allegiance to their menfolk. The themes of duty, loyalty and the difference between the two make for a night of heavy, but not too polemical, drama.
At the centre of the play is the Ford family, a household of women headed by Brenda, and including three other generations, her mother-in-law, her teenage daughter and her grand daughter. Brenda's husband has just been released after sixteen years in jail and his return is the catalyst which explodes the existence she has painstakingly constructed since his imprisonment. Mitchell takes us behind the scenes and behind the politics to show how these women live and what has made them what they are. Are they as much victims and victim-makers of sexual politics as of the more conventional kind? How far are they responsible for their own repression and suffering?
You may not find Mitchell's treatment of these questions entirely convincing, but this is a play strong on plot, revelation and back-story, which it would be unfair to give away. Suffice to say that there are secrets and lies and betrayals in a community that prides itself on solidarity and loyalty. The characterisation is solid and three-dimensional, although the pacing does go awry in places, sidetracked by a little too much talk, leaving its fine cast stretched to make the whole thing work coherently.
And it is a very fine cast; Lisa Hogg plays a teenage mother clearly still in need of mothering herself. The innocence and experience she conveys is mirrored by grandmother Rita (Valerie Lilley). We are never quite sure if Rita is genuinely on the verge of senility, is playing it up or perhaps doing both. Whatever the truth, she is a constant presence in her curtained off room, though not as bed-bound as everyone believes. Of the other characters Cara Kelly, as WUDA thug Heather, gets laughs from the audience before they realised her character really is that stupid and that dangerous. Heather is a perfect embodiment of patriotism as a license for violence and a salve for personal disappointment.
Michelle Fairley's performance as the besieged matriarch Brenda defines the play. It's a remarkable depiction of a woman changed under enormous pressure. She imbues every concession wrung from her, every mistake that distances her from her daughter with the sense that strength alone is not always enough. In a remarkable final scene she leaves us wondering whether she has relapsed into her old self, or discovered a new and different strength altogether. As with so many crises in Northern Ireland, the meaning and the future are unclear.
While Christopher Oram's set is a plausible recreation of a provincial living room, I couldn't help feeling the play would have been better served in the smaller Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court than the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. The play, explosive enough, would have had even more impact with these powerful performances right in our face.
So do we understand Northern Ireland better? We do understand more about these women's lives and see the domestic tragedies behind the larger ones and Mitchell leaves us with a final scene that is chilling and almost classically tragic. But there are some jarring notes: a fair few clichés to get past -- "What happened to you?" "You happened to me" - and the like and, although artfully constructed, the plot is wound perhaps a little too tightly around these characters. Our sense of place, of the world these people live in, becomes claustrophobic, but perhaps that is the intention. Perhaps more satisfying are Martin McDonagh's plays which use the same setting and have a similar appreciation of plot, but are leavened with humour and, admittedly violent, changes of tone. Lacking these qualities, Loyal Women is tougher going but worth the ride if you like your drama hard-boiled.
LINK to Curtain Up's review of another play by Gary Mitchell The Force of Change
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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