The story of Susan Dalston could not have been staged anywhere else – Martina Cole’s Two Women fits perfectly with the Theatre Royal, Stratford’s first permanent playhouse since 1884. As Artistic Director Kerry Michael puts it: “Her authentic East End voice and passion for strong female characters makes this perfect material for us to explore on our stage”. Martina Cole, the author of 16 bestsellers, is one of the most well known British crime novelists, as well as patron of Chelmsford Women’s Aid and Ambassador for Gingerbread, the National Council for One Parent Families. Her books have been sold by the millions and inspired popular television adaptations such as The Take for Sky1. Two Women is the first of her novels to be translated for the stage.
The over six hundred pages that constitute the novel have been by necessity significantly reduced by Patrick Prior for this adaptation. The show is rich in flashbacks. Starting from the very last scene, it goes back and forth with quick set changes (designed by Yannis Thavoris) and a fitting sound design (by Theo Holloway). This production, directed by Theatre Royal Stratford East’s associate Ryan Romain features a renowned cast of professionals including Marc Bannerman (Eastenders), Frances Albery (Hunter), Victoria Alcock (Coronation Street, Bad Girls), Alison Newman (The Vagina Monologues, Kidulthood). The “two women” of the cast, Cathy Murphy and Laura Howard, bring to life two starkly contrasted characters – one born to a working class family consisting of an abusive father and a devious mother; the other the middle class picture of money and boredom.
Susan and Matty meet in Holloway prison. They are both in for the same reason: murdering their respective husbands. They also admit their guilt and show no sign of regret. “I would do it again”, Susan had told police and newspapers after hitting her husband a hundred times with a claw hammer. By doing this she had showed the temperament of a serial killer rather than a harmless little victim, “the person needing protection” which as a woman she should, by society’s standards, always portray. At least this is Matty’s theory, as she herself explains to her cellmate in one of several dialogues where they respond to one another, prod one another, laugh together and give in to each other’s provocation. Matty and Susan are outcasts of society, united solely by their gender and the crimes they have committed, not victims. However battered and badly treated under the yoke of shameful and careless individuals who were committed to gratuitous acts of violence never even seen in the animal world, Susan blames herself for marrying a man who so much resembled her violent and brutal father, the person she had hated most in the world. In spite of being subjected to the random follies of empty minds fed by ignorance and boredom and devoid of any reflection, she takes full responsibility of what has happened and does her best to protect her children from a similar destiny.
The show is enjoyable and leaves room for both laughter and tears.
Two Women is on at Theatre Royal until March 20