Conceived by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson, Devised with Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
As the creative team behind this production for Clean Break are happy to remind viewers, there is a multiplicity of TV and film drama based on the fictional experiences of women who find themselves in prisons around the world.
The intention here is to set the record straight by allowing “women with lived experience of the criminal justice system”, not so much to tell their own stories as share anecdotes.
As a crib sheet, provided by the company in an attempt to avoid the use of prejudicial language, explains, Clean Break has been running for 40 years with the goal of allowing its members, who are artists with experience of prison, to tell their own stories.
In this case, Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small are helped by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson who have, one assumes, both pieced together a cohesive text from the members’ stories and directed the quartet in an hour-long production.
The frame that the conceiving couple use is a prospective film focusing on different aspects of the members’ lives both when they were within the criminal justice system and outside, before and after.
Before long, they each have hip nicknames and cool uniforms even though they admit that not one of them ever wore such a costume while serving their sentences.
The women interact with the audience, teasing out prejudices while revealing relatively small amounts about their own experiences. They also contrast these with some of the screen fictions, particularly rubbishing popular American series Orange Is the New Black.
By the end of a performance that uses a wide range of different presentation techniques including speech from a symbolically enclosed box, lip syncing with their own words and a series of games, viewers will have respect for the efforts that Bulldog, The Artist and their colleagues have made to normalise their lives and their bravery in presenting at least some of their experiences on stage.
Perhaps inevitably, they come across as sympathetic, which may be helped by the fact that we only discover one person’s crime, which is described as “importation” and appears to have been an attempt to smuggle some unknown goods into the United Kingdom.
It is inevitable that four women brought together because of a common experience cannot perform in the same way as trained actors who may have spent a lifetime on the stage, although to an extent a lack of polish is compensated for by sincerity and humour.
In many ways, the format, which jumps around without going into any topic in depth, does the women and their subject a disservice. Viewers might well have discovered far more from a series of longer, more direct interviews (or even interrogations) with the subjects able to explain themselves and outline their time pre, in and post prison in a more coherent manner, rather than receiving a sketchy impression of each of these diverse personalities and their experiences.