Review of 'Loyal Women' by Gary Mitchell, Royal Court, London
Gary Mitchell's play gives us a complex, engaging and thoroughly humorous insight into the deeply embedded effects of living in a segregated community. Four generations of women live under the same roof in a poor estate in Protestant Belfast. All have a strong association with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). One is a baby and the eldest, the mother in law, has confined herself to bed in the living room. This leaves Brenda caring for all of them, including her 16 year old daughter Jenny.
The first half of the play seduces us with a familiar sitcom-like set of familial relationships, albeit with an intriguing subplot. Jenny draws the most laughs as - like Harry Enfield's Kevin and Perry - she flounces around with a permanent sneer and refuses to take any responsibility in the house or for her baby, and demands her mother does this for her.
Brenda duly delivers and thereby unravels the conundrum of deeply loyal women who want to provide love and protection to their loved ones.
Brenda and her family, together with others in the UDA women's section, are locked in a useless battle as they attempt to provide succour and protection against the influences of the outside world. Far from providing respect for and a defence of their community, their actions degrade and brutalise them.
This play has popular appeal. The production is highly enjoyable, perfectly acted and shockingly concluded. It deserves contrast with the play A Night in November by Marie Jones, which toured Britain earlier in the year and similarly outlined the diminishing effects of bigotry within a Belfast Protestant community. There are no revelatory moments here, no solutions. In a similar manner to the novels of Emile Zola the play documents how distortions and hatred can be passed down through generations.
Brenda is unable to protect her daughter and granddaughter from the cycle of violence she has been trying to escape. She is betrayed by the splits and petty jealousies of a flawed and bigoted organisation. She is sold out by a tradition that cannot see the obvious parallels between a young Protestant girl and the man of a different faith she is dating who lives on an adjacent council estate with a similar lack of opportunities.
Brenda admits her priorities used to be, 'Ulster, the queen, Britain and fuck everything else', but while those priorities have changed and she believes that her country and the organisation she belongs to have betrayed her, there is no escape.
There is a section in the Blues Brothers movie that I have always had a problem with. That is the scene where Aretha Franklin powerfully demands a little more 'Respect' and just doesn't receive it - she's laughed out of the script. It does not make the grade in what is otherwise a magnificent satire of white, redneck cultural values.
Loyal Women makes the point that the respect and loyalty that the women of the UDA are demanding cannot be achieved against the bankrupt politics of lies, hatred and self deception.