Widely recognised as a leading Scottish prison drama, Iron is a dark psychological examination of criminality and its effect on familial bonds. Since its debut in 2002, the play has seen revivals in both Scotland and England, and now, bought to the Old Red Lion, it continues to offer a provocative insight into custodial punishments.
The play follows Josie, a 25-year-old personnel manager who, after 15 years of absence, visits her mother, who is serving life for murder. The mother and daughter pair commence a painful recovery of childhood memories and forgotten emotions. As the play’s author Rona Munro comments, a fascination with human redemption and perseverance is at the heart of this story.
Designer Libby Todd’s meticulous attention to colour in Bold Over’s revival creates a sterile and impermeable prison world. Throughout the first half, everything – clothing, chairs, bedding, tables, flooring – can be comfortably placed on a grey scale. This reflects the stale and depthless exchanges between inmate Fay (Shuna Snow) and visiting daughter Josie (Emma Deegan), in their first reunions. We see a penal world where nothing is to be moved, but equally everything feels out of place. Yet, as the mental iron walls between Fay and Josie start to melt, the setting simultaneously warms up, dispersing objects of colour through the second half, and the cold fluorescent lighting gives way to deeper, dim lit scenes.
In these scenes, the bond between mother and daughter is completely absorbing. Matt Beresford’s direction makes us feel we are uncomfortably looking in on relationships on the fringe of society and emphasises the alienation not only of criminals, but also their families. As the pair reminisce over Josie’s desire to get her ears pierced, a wave of familiarity passes over the audience and urges us to realise that anyone can commit crime.
Fay’s power to manipulate her daughter and the prison guards to make them recognise themselves in her crime reaches beyond the stage in the intimacy of the Old Red Lion. When Josie and Fay look around at the other visitors in visiting hour it is us they look to, inverting the audience-stage dynamic with startling effect.
Snow’s portrayal of Fay, a character who is mother, murderer, schemer and vulnerable child, is utterly flawless. In the play’s penultimate scene, and as the explicit details of Fay’s crime are revealed, Snow visibly becomes animal onstage. The trauma and guilt of Fay’s life seem to physically possess her. Snow’s ability to be both loving mother and nervous criminal is mesmerising, and possibly the best performance at the Old Red Lion for some time.
The Iron of Munro’s title refers not only to the gates of separation from family and past, but in Beresford’s revival, a stoic sensibility to persevere. The humanity of Snow’s performance along with all of the supporting characters, and the uncomfortable familiarity of relationships, make this production a fantastically moving and revealing, and totally engrossing piece of theatre. Beresford’s use of space and script makes an extremely entertaining and deeply poignant production, which is absolutely not to be missed.
Iron is playing at the Old Red Lion until Saturday 12 October. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre.