Plenty of actors have turned their hand to portraying East End gangsters. No matter how 'method' they get, however, none have come close to Ryan Simms when it comes to understanding the role.
Why? Because Ryan watched the story at first hand - blood, betrayal, code of honour and all. If you find yourself transfixed, if it seems all too real, as this debut play, Prairie Flower, unfolds on stage, there is a very good reason for that. The one man show's anti-hero, Danny O'Halloran, is Ryan's dad.
Better known as Skinny Dan or Longdog, he 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 (“Anyone active in my line of work always operates under the radar - Reggie and Ronnie were exceptions and look what happened to them'”).
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.
Skinny Dan never did understand why his youngest son wanted to be an actor. He told Ryan straight: “You boy are getting a proper job. END OF!” But the same drive which made him one of the most feared - and respected - career criminals in London has also pushed his son to follow his own destiny.
Prairie Flower is a work of undiluted passion. Ryan Simms has turned his family's dark past into a compelling new play and his own standout performance as his father is utterly mesmerising.
The show is directed by Paul Caister, The Poor School's founder and director, and runs upstairs at the Gatehouse from 12th September – 6th October.
Of course there's no dodging the moral questions here. Skinny Dan could be a terrifying sort. Lacking the imposing physical bulk of his contemporaries he had to prove himself. “There never was that much of me so I had to fight dirty didn't I?” he implores the audience at one point. “I had to be spiteful.”
Ryan takes the audience under his dad's skin, exposing a truly wild, untamed and often violent force. Underpinning it all, however, is the love of a father and husband.
This is a man who lived by a code and who put his liberty on the line to stand up for what he believed in. 'Straightgoers' were safe. Grasses were anything but. Longdog spent decades inside rather than rat out his pals, and he had no time for those who would. It was a way of life from a particular moment in British history. It was a do-the-crime do-the-time deal.
It is, perhaps, telling that only now, years after his father’s death, Ryan is finally following his dream to act. He is making up for his own lost time, for all the 9-5 jobs his heart just wasn’t in. The self-penned Prairie Flower could be called his coming of age.
And there is a twist in the tale. In the second Act, when he is 70 years old and just months from death, Danny will answer questions from the audience about his life, his family, the people he knew, the things he did.
This in itself will be a totally unpredictable experience. What will be asked? More to the point, what will be revealed? The answers could be unexpected, riveting and even educational.
And there's only one way to find out - come and see for yourself.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 12th Sept – 6th Oct
Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm
Sunday Matinees 4pm
Saturday Matinees 29th September & 6th October 4pm
TICKETS: £18 – £22 (Concessions available)