Prairie Flower

Perhaps as a five-part radio serial Prairie Flower might provide some particular interest to crime enthusiasts, but as a two-hour monologue in the Upstairs at the Gatehouse, even with a fifteen-minute interval, it progresses somewhat tediously.

Fails to deliver the punch it needs to survive on stage.

The story is rooted in East London against a backdrop of gangland feuds and endemic rivalries when the Kray twins ruled supreme. They might be the most famous but were not the only bad guys of the age; there were plenty of less well-known characters darkening the streets who had a major impact on life in the pubs, clubs, homes and businesses of the area and beyond. One of them was Danny O'Halloran. He featured prominently among the ranks of gangsters who were both feared and respected. It’s his story that Ryan Simms has written up and now relates on stage. As O'Halloran’s son, Simms is well placed to give the low-down on his father’s achievements and failings as a career criminal.

There is no lack of passion or energy in the telling of the story but there is no relief from it either. Events march on relentlessly as we are taken through a catalogue of encounters with notorious characters and enough crime scenes to keep the police busy for years. Life inside, dealings with prison warders and the hierarchy of those doing time are all featured. Apparently, there is honour among thieves and for those who don’t play by the rules there are serious consequences whether in jail or out on the streets.

Simms abruptly exits the stage after about an hour. I puzzled with a numbed friend for a while whether this might be the end, having not registered that there was an interval. We were clearly not alone in this confusion. Failure to pace this break reflected an underlying problem with the piece as a whole. The momentum remains constant; there are no highs and lows, no significant contrasts in emotion or breaking up of the material into manageable scenes. The single creaking chair that forms the set has no significance. Simms seemingly sits down, stands up, paces back and forth and generally moves around the space as the mood takes him. From time to time he drinks from a beaker and the bottle, but that is presumably just to sustain his speech. There are no props or changes of costume to relieve the sight of tan leather shoes, pale grey trousers and a white shirt pacing hither and thither.

The story is clearly well learned and there is a lot of it; too much in fact. The style is casual, almost as though a series of responses in a chat show from a man who just wants to pour out story after story. The hot-seating session at the end gives the audience the chance to pose any questions they might have. The answers, however, come across as yet more well-rehearsed highly adaptable responses. Ultimately, the hype that accompanies this play is far greater than the substance. Director Paul Caister has a a wealth of material here but more becomes less as the ability to absorb is eroded.

Prairie Flower is overflowing with anecdotes and gives a rare insight into a bygone age, but it fails to deliver the punch it needs to survive on stage.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

An East End gangster’s tale as you’ve never heard it before.

Better known as Skinny Dan or Longdog, Danny O’Halloran was a villain in the old fashioned sense of the word. A contemporary of the Great Train Robbers, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and all those old-school London gangsters, he robbed banks for a living. But, unlike the infamous Kray twins, he never sought the spotlight.

After a life spent shuttling in and out of jail, scrapping to survive and leaving plenty of broken bones in his wake, Longdog died in 2005. Prairie Flower is set in that year.

Written and performed by Danny’s son Ryan Simms, this one man play turns a family’s dark past into a compelling new piece of theatre.

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