Studio Theatre, Hackney Empire
This two-hander, set in a prison cell, is about people not prison. Playwright Lyn Greenwood worked as a psychotherapist at Wormwood Scrubs so presumably she has first hand knowledge of prison life but, as Lu Firth's set seemed to emphasise, this was not intended to be a naturalistic piece. Prisoners' beds abutting each other at an angle and a back wall of bars with a graffiti- covered wall beyond them - its red swirls flashing brightly in the dim-outs to mark passing time - and plastic beakers matched to turquoise and orange sheets, were symbols of imprisonment and outside not its actuality.
Ash (Christopher Streeks), already sitting reading and writing on his bed when the audience enter, is a former English teacher. He is an educated black man with a degree whose father had become a solicitor, while uncles were bus-drivers. Why he is in prison had something to do with a car and a girl. Either it was intended to remain unclear or I missed it. This is one of those plays where you have to have a better ear than mine for heavy London black accents - though Ash speaks elegant received pronunciation.
A much younger black, Charlie (Femi Oyeniran), enters through the auditorium chanting his own rap: 'What else is there in life for me; what else is there for me.' He's a loser. Unable to read or write, he couldn't get a job. His frustration expressed through violence, he's been banged up for GBH: he beat up a poncey yuppie. His shadow-boxing, sudden push-ups and nervous twitching, his crutch groping needs and erotic crudities contrast with Ash's calm demeanour.
You'd think them incompatible but Ash has always been a loner. Sent to boarding school after his mother died he was bullied as the only black and his only friends were the others excluded because they were fat or stupid. A disappointment to his father, he too sees himself as a failure, though it is not clear why.
Locked up together they have to get on, though the play does not explore the problems that entails but seems to rely on Ash's tolerance or his ability to shut himself away with a book or writing to explain it. Predictably, perhaps, teacher Ash becomes Charlies' mentor, helping him write letter to the girls he fantasises about.
Charlie calls himself a useless cunt but Ash sees potential in his rap and exposes an aspiration to become a gardener. Soon he his helping Charlie to read and write. But a mate from Dalston, who knew the school where Ash used to teach, brings revelations about the older man's association with one of his pupils and this leads to a confrontation and worse, just at a time when a real bond has developed between these two men.
In effect this is a play about growing trust between men who are different and how ingrained attitudes and prejudice can so easily destroy it. I think this could be a much stronger play if it looked more closely at the situation it presents and did not resort to a melodramatic solution to its plotting but the actors make the most of the material they are given and Brazilian director Franko Figueirodo has given it good shape and rhythm. I particularly liked the way in which Ash begins to pick up some of the street-cred mannerisms of Charlie. In the wordless ending there is a suggestion of a whole layer of extra meaning which perhaps may also be the director's contribution. If it is in the original script it is a pity it was not explored further, for it could have made a more complete and questioning play.
At Hackney Empire until 5th May.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton