In his one-man show Prairie Flower, Ryan Simms takes on the role of his late father, East London gangster Danny O’Halloran. Simms tells Giverny Masso about the emotional challenges of playing a parent…
How did you get into acting?
My old man always wanted to put us to work, he didn’t want us to live a life of crime like he did. A nine-to-five job never suited me, I always hated it. I always wanted to be an actor, but people laugh at you if you say that where I come from. I went through a bad spate of depression where I had no direction in life and I wanted to do something I enjoyed. I managed to get the money together to go to the Poor School in London, and I realised it was what I should have been doing from day one.
Does your life experience inform your acting?
Definitely. I haven’t led a boring life and having a father such as mine gave me another education. I had two schools – the academic one and the street one. I’ve used that in my acting. When I was at the Poor School I showed Paul [Caister, founder] a piece of writing I’d done about myself that was true. He was gobsmacked, and said ‘I want to know more’. I could write a novel.
Tell me about Prairie Flower…
In the show we do it as Paul Caister prompting me, then the second part is a question-and-answer with the audience. We want to grab people’s attention from the first 5-10 seconds, so we start with my dad’s experiences with Reggie and Ronnie [Kray]. The main thing is authenticity. You don’t need to come from my background to watch these British gangster films and know that it’s over the top. The people doing the writing of these films haven’t lived my life or met my people.
What is it like to play your father?
It’s different from any role. We were very close. The emotional side is difficult. If anyone’s lost a parent that’s bad enough. He was a good dad. He’s guilty of murder and bank robberies, but no one can doubt he was a good father. I feel as though I have been getting closer to him with this role.
How would your dad have felt about this show?
If he was alive he would have said no to me doing it, because he was all about secrecy. My mum loves what I do and is my biggest supporter. I have a lot of the information from my mum and dad’s friends. I’m doing what the boss – my mum – wants even if there’s turmoil, and if there’s turmoil that means I’m getting closer to my dad. This has never been done before. No one of my dad’s stature has had their son write about them and get up on stage. I’d love to take this on tour after the Gatehouse, and my end game would be a mini-series.
Training: Poor School, London, 2015-17
First professional role: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton at Hen and Chickens Theatre, London
Prairie Flower runs Upstairs at the Gatehouse in London from September 12 to October 6