Life in prison is undoubtedly dull. Days pass by slowly and monotonously. Unfortunately the same can be said for much of Philip Osment's play Inside which follows the lives of young fathers behind bars. The seven young prisoners join a theatre programme run by Liam (Jim Pope) and through the exercises they do in his class the audience are given an insight into their childhoods as well as their hopes for the future. The results are largely predictable. Most had abusive or absent fathers. While their commitment to ensuring their own children do not suffer the same fate is inspiring, it is not enough to sustain the play.
The play, researched at Rochester Prison, began its life as Fathers Inside and was first performed by the National Youth Theatre at Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institute and the Soho Theatre. Inside is a reworking of Fathers Inside and features many of the original cast members. It is interesting to note that the Soho Theatre is currently presenting Charged, a series of short plays that explore the effect of the criminal justice system on women.
The characters in Inside generally behave like unruly children, and many are young enough to still be at school. This presents a challenge to Liam who has to juggle treating the men like adults, whilst maintaining some sort of discipline. At one point the class gets out of hand and Liam threatens to press the panic alarm, an ominous red button which remains centre stage throughout. It is obvious that, despite their behaviour in his class, they prefer the patient and respectful treatment they get from Liam to that of the prison guards.
The strongest scenes are those in the theatre class. Performed on the raised centre part of the stage, they are enthused with an energy that is lacking in other parts. The apex of the play is when Liam and the boys re-enact a family scene where one of the prisoners returns home only to be sent away by his parents. It is both funny and touching. Humour is used throughout the play but it at times feels like the audience are laughing at the men rather than with them.
There are a number of personal side stories that are explored within the play which give the play a soap opera feel. One of those stories is that of Liam's assistant Dom (Andre Skeete). A number of the prisoners, in particular Brownie (Segun Olaiya), start to give him a hard time about his sexuality. When he later admits that he is gay by reading out a letter to his estranged father Olu (Ayo Bodunrin) reacts by screaming and moving his chair to the opposite end of the room.
The scenes exploring the daily lives of the prisoners generally take place at the rear and sides of the stage, off the raised platform. They particularly focus on the ways in which the men jostle to climb the pecking order. They use facts revealed about each other during Liam's sessions to either undermine each other or boost themselves up the ranks.
This includes rumours within the prison that Tommy (Jacob James Beswick) is a paedophile which results in him being bashed to prevent his attendance at the performance day when all of the prisoner's children will be present. In the final scene of the play Tommy reveals a twist which goes some way towards saving an otherwise uninspired plot, but it's too little too late.
Runs until 27th November
Reviewer: Iain James Finlayson