In 1971, the Ulster Defence Association, the largest loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, was formed. It has been in bloody conflict with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ever since. The rivalry of ideals between the two factions in Northern Ireland's ongoing troubles serves as a backdrop to the newest opus by award-winning playwright Gary Mitchell.

Loyal Women, the third of Mitchell's works to be staged at the Royal Court, examines the conflict from the simple seclusion of Brenda Ford's Belfast home during the Christmas season, when blue-collar heroine Brenda is assailed by demands from a host of individuals.

There's her 16-year old daughter, the image of what the now-jaded Brenda once was, and her baby, Brenda's granddaughter, who must be cared for. There's her ex-husband Terry, who wants back in on his daughter's life after years away, and Brenda's mother-in-law, currently residing in the front room. To add to the chaos, there's the Women's Chapter of the UDA, who want to hold their meetings at Brenda's humble abode.

Things get off to an uncertain start, with much of the drama getting muddled in somewhat trivial exposition and the introduction of several supporting characters who are played to stereotype rather than as definitive portrayals of troubled and hardened individuals.

Mitchell's writing does have a natural pulse and life to it, though those qualities seem in short supply during the first half: the 'peaks and valleys' are absent here, the dynamic levels that provide for variation and give colour to the author's words.

Luckily, the second half proves far different, providing for riveting and fiery drama, led in large part by the performances of Michelle Fairley as Brenda and Lisa Hogg as Jenny. This is a mother and daughter relationship that has a great amount of depth. Together, these two fine actresses achieve numerous breathtaking moments.

The end comes abruptly, without any resolution, leaving this reviewer to wonder if the piece is due a sequel or is intended as part of a trilogy (the programme doesn't say). In any case, a successful play, trilogy or not, should be able to stand on its own, which Loyal Women fails to do.

Still, despite a first act lacking pace and cohesiveness, director Josie Rourke presents a well-staged piece that grabs the audience, and Christopher Oram's simple set design serves its purpose, truthfully showing the disarray in which Brenda Ford, her family and so many of their countrymen and women, live their lives.

- Christian Bell