Two Women, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London
Women on the verge of cliché
Even by the standards of soap-opera weddings, Susan Dalston's is a notable one. As her mother shrieks about effing this and that, the pregnant bride's father and her fiancé, Barry, arrive at the church late, high-spirited and dishevelled. After vows are exchanged, Susan falls as Barry grabs her bottom, and dad, thinking he has pushed her, starts a punch-up. The priest, a braver man than any of the local publicans (Barry and dad are extortionists), chucks them out and says they're banned. The ceremony is a model of decorum next to the reception.
The standards of soap, not theatre, are the ones to apply, but not because most of the cast are alumni of EastEnders. The novelist Martina Cole, whose oeuvre has sold more than eight million copies, has an imagination bounded by bad TV, crime news, and confession magazines and a vocabulary that would not tax speakers of pidgin (foul-mouthed ones, that is: one word appears so frequently that Cole has probably had a key for it fitted to her computer). This adaptation, by Patrick Prior, lurches from cliché to banality as it alternates past scenes of Barry's violence and infidelity with present ones, in prison, where Susan has been sent after a conviction for hammering Barry's face in – a fact her cellmate rather tactlessly ignores by responding to one of Susan's remarks with "You've hit the nail on the head!" Susan is repeatedly praised as a good mother, though her inertia is responsible for her husband's rape of their 14-year-old daughter; nor is society indicted for its neglect and condescension, which are also responsible for the characters' low expectations, typified by Barry's awe at his new girlfriend: "You even use a napkin when you eat a sandwich. It's like someone's opened up a door to a whole new world for me."
Ryan Romain's production is full of signs and walls that are raised and lowered, sometimes so briskly that they bounce. Except for Alison Newman's loyal best friend, however, the performances, are bereft of bounce, as wooden and phlegmatic as the fighting. Cathy Murphy's Susan is so terrified when held in a choke-hold by a knife-wielding maniac that she uses both hands to adjust the hem of her pullover.
The audience's enthusiasm was a playwright's dream, and its composition – old, young, black, white – a politician's. But this play tells them, and not very well, nothing they don't already know. Its title brings to mind another story about the rape of a child, but that film – and, even more, Alberto Moravia's superb novel – is also about a poor woman's awakening from pettiness and ignorance to the suffering and beauty of a wider world. Don't the Stratford theatregoers deserve as much?
To 20 March (020 8534 0310)
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