The Jumper Factory
Luke Barnes in collaboration with inmates at HMP Wandsworth
Young Vic Taking Part and Justin Audibert
Even before The Jumper Factory begins, the play has arguably achieved the goal to which theatre companies aspire: it has changed lives. Although the six members of the cast, aged 18–25, were not professional actors when the play opened, they have since acquired agents and places on training courses. This is significant, as previously their lives had been in some way affected by the criminal justice system. Although none of the cast had been in gaol, they had been involved in anti-social activities like dealing drugs or chasing a fox (honest) or have prisoners or their guards as relatives.
The content of The Jumper Factory is not, in itself, life changing. Luke Barnes’s script, based on verbatim interviews with inmates at HMP Wandsworth, describes the life of prisoners from the moment of capture through their adjustment to prison life. This includes the manner in which a new inmate can be brutalised by the system and someone desperate to avoid trouble can make a devastating error out of sheer boredom. Perhaps the most powerful tale involves the rituals by which prisoners cope with the numbing effect of living in a cell 23 hours a day.
The stories are entirely from the viewpoint of the prisoners while they are serving their sentences. No mention is made of their life before gaol or if anyone suffered because of their crimes. Whilst this is a valid way of scrutinising the effectiveness of the prison system, it results in the prisoners seeming self-pitying rather than remorseful.
Although familiarity limits the emotional impact of the stories, Barnes succeeds in bringing out the impact of incarceration upon the lives of the prisoners and their families. The title of the play comes from a prisoner’s effort to conceal his incarceration by telling his family he is working on-site in a jumper factory. A modern twist in the story is that such discretion is now hard to achieve as failure to update one’s Facebook page is a dead giveaway.
The young cast show great maturity in their approach to the material and have no difficulty in setting the audience at ease. The cast rise to the challenge of adopting female characteristics or playing an awkward child and even deliver speeches in French. They are just as confident delivering a monologue as they are creating a rowdy group heckling the main speaker.
A key theme of the play is the stifling monotony of life in gaol but director Josh Parr ensures The Jumper Factory is far from dull. There is a lively, even cheeky tone with the opening speeches listing the crimes committed by the inmates upon whose stories the play is based before going on to remind the audience of other people who have been incarcerated—like Nelson Mandela. The staging constantly shifts from monologue to conversation to overlapping speeches, thereby avoiding any possibility of the play becoming a dour recitation of grim facts.
By avoiding any mention of possible victims, The Jumper Factory is a one-sided viewpoint of the criminal justice system but brings out the human cost of incarceration. Even so, it is doubtful the audience will learn anything new from the play although it remains a powerful presentation and a strong showcase for a group of actors new to their craft.
Reviewer: David Cunningham