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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Iron
by Lizzie Loveridge

Women are like dogs, doesn't matter how much they have been kicked they will still turn towards kindness.
-- Male Prison Guard
Rona Munro's latest play Iron comes to the Royal Court after an airing at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in July. Set in a Scottish woman's prison, the complex story of two women is told. One is a long-term prisoner, a "lifer", Fay (Sandy McDade), who murdered her husband and the other, her daughter, Josie (Louise Ludgate), whom she has not seen for fifteen years. Josie has grown up without her mother and has no memories of the murder or her life beforehand and has come to get answers to her questions.

Rona Munro's meticulous picture of prison life encompasses the developing relationship between the two women and their interaction with two members of the prison staff called simply Guards One (Ged McKenna) and Two (Helen Lomax). In a plot which seems to resemble a murder mystery Munro draws the audience into guessing what may have actually happened. But unlike a murder mystery there are no easy answers here, no neat explanation but an unequivocal picture of the consequences of a single act of violence. The quality of writing and the descriptive passages of what life is like in prison are impressive, almost poetic in places. You can hear Rona Munro's experience as a writer of radio plays.

The character of the mother is well played by Sandy McDade. Nervous, startled and institutionalised, with no visitors and only a few plants for company, she has to learn how to communicate with her own daughter. Although she is vulnerable she is also devious. Fifteen years inside lead her to want vicarious pleasure in hearing an account of her daughter's evening out. "You're better than television." she says in her thirst for second hand experience. She describes her relationship with the warders, her alienation, "After fifteen years they own me, I'm a piece of Playdough for them." The daughter, who has been brought up by her father's mother, is a successful business woman, divorced, conventional but very curious about her mother. She keeps her visits to the prison secret from her friends and workmates. It is like a love story, the way these two women get involved and then tear apart.

All four performances are very good. Sandy McDade's androgynous lifer is hauntingly obsessive. The scene where she is on hunger strike is as convincing as it is disturbing. Louise Ludgate's na´ve but anxious to please, daughter in suit and high heels is travelling into unknown territory, the price of a few memories that we all take for granted. The female guard, Helen Lomax, has been close to Fay as she herself went through a broken marriage but she is always the uniformed officer, always aware of the "us" and "them" dichotomy. The male guard, "the Fox in the Henhouse" Ged McKenna, is more accepting, more phlegmatic, less involved than the women characters.

The prison set is institutionalised grey wood where it should be metal but with a steel staircase and the clanging of doors sound effects are authentic. I liked the director's placing of the guards on different levels using the stairs, always listening in the background. Whilst Iron may not be as exciting or as violent as HBO's Oz it is nonetheless a powerful piece of writing about the effects of imprisonment on the female psyche.

Iron
Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Roxana Silbert

With: Helen Lomax, Louise Ludgate, Sandy McDade, Ged McKenna
Designer: Anthony McIlwaine
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Sound: Matt Mackenzie
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 1st March 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 31st January 2003 Performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube Station: Sloane Square)
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©Copyright 2003, Elyse Sommer

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