Live Theatre, Paines Plough and Synergy Theatre Project
Live Theatre, Newcastle
Prison drama has a long history. If we take two TV extremes, there’s the three highly successful 1970s series of Porridge, written by Clements & Le Frenais and starring Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale. This was quality stuff, if soft-centered. Roy Minton’s 1991 TV depiction of borstal life Scum, which as far as I can recall didn’t go in for star names, was rougher round the edges—hard-boiled in fact.
Neither of these, nor indeed such excellent films as Escape from Alcatraz, were written by an ex-con, who in One Off is also in the cast of four. The play’s title, according to the programme notes, “was the dignity afforded to those who could take no more. No names. Not even their number," Suicide features heavily in the play.
Author Ric Renton served much of his young adult years in Durham prison. He could neither read nor write, but when offered a Bible, he asked instead for a dictionary. With this essential tool, he entered the creative world of words, and now two of his plays have been professionally produced this year, one at Omnibus Theatre London and now One Off at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, co-produced with the acknowledged Paines Plough company and in co-operation with Synergy Theatre Project. This last outfit works creatively with prisoners and those at risk of offending.
I don’t really need to say much more for this to be an uplifting story. But I’ll say more anyway.
One Off bears little resemblance to the films, series etc mentioned above, or at least only in the way you could say Walt Disney and David Attenborough both make films about animals.
The play’s raw intensity, its barbed wire humour, its characters' mix of brutality and vulnerability, the hot blood coursing through its veins and its sense of despair infused ultimately with a shot of hope make this—well, a one-off.
A cast of four has Renton playing himself (here called Shepherd) with Ryan Nolan and Ricky Shah as fellow inmates Brown and Knox and Malcolm Shields as the prison guard Jock. Using the word ‘playing’ or even 'actors' somehow seems wrong. They are these people. And they are banged up, and they are cruel and savage and potentially violent and despairing, and their language is foul and insulting and they are f**ed up inside and they clinging desperately to some links to the outside world.
There is no easy liberalism here, no over-convenient compassion or romanticism. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, yet who in the audience would have missed this searing experience? All four give terrific performances, but a special word for Ryan Nolan's Brown, a mixture of feral aggression and desperate vulnerability. The scene of Brown shooting up is especially harrowing.
The play’s acted out on a simple set of three large blocks, one for each prisoner’s cell. Live’s artistic director Jack McNamara directs with an intense energy and conviction, making dramatic use of choreography (movement from Alicia Meehan), lighting (Ali Hunter), sound (Adam P McCready), all helping to drive the piece relentlessly forward, even to places we don't want it to go.
If you come out having been put through the ringer—and you will—there will be no complaints.
And if the play haunts you afterwards—and it will—again, the haunting is all part of it..
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer