Joe Ainsworth’s The Stretch, which began as a 15-minute play as part of the annual JB Shorts, has now been expanded to full-length format. After an altercation in a bar leads to manslaughter, Lee (James Lewis) is sent to gaol for eight years. Lee is, however, unrepentant and sees himself as the victim. Convinced he has been wronged by the judicial system, Lee is sure he will have his conviction overturned on appeal and is planning how to spend the compensation he will claim. But things do not turn out as planned and Lee begins to adapt to prison life by joining gangs and taking easy relief from drugs.
The Stretch is intended to raise awareness of the shortcomings of the judicial system and generate sympathy for prisoners and prison workers. But Ainsworth is too honest a writer to manipulate facts just to support his arguments and makes Lee a realistically unsympathetic character. In a very physical performance, James Lewis opens as a cocksure braggart confronting the audience from the stage as if daring them to contradict his delusional opinions. Lee sees himself as a romantic figure, as from a movie, and is notably without a shred of regret for his actions or any concern for his victim. This self-pitying and arrogant approach is daring and risks alienating the audience which the play is intended to win over.
The cyclical nature of offending is drawn-out with subtlety. The play is well advanced before factors which might have influenced Lee’s attitude and limited his options, such as a drunken abusive father, are explored.
The extended version of The Stretch retains the structure of the original verse monologue with deliberately florid turns of phrase. The script is not without humour; when Lee lists the offenders who might have occupied his cell before him, he includes MPs.
Director Simon Naylor works against the nature of the script with a very physical and muscular production. Rather than try and capture the claustrophobic effect of incarceration, Naylor sets a larger-than-life, delirious atmosphere, dragging the audience into Lee’s tormented state of mind. To the side of the stage, a television monitor alternates between photographs of the exercise yard and a static image of someone pressed against glass with white noise howling in the background.
David Howell’s set is a cage-like structure made of metal bars. The cast, rendered anonymous by identical grey uniforms and mesh masks, swing around the cage like demonic creatures tormenting Lee. Movement director Elianne Hawley twists the cast into abstract poses giving the cumulative effect of a grotesque gothic nightmare come to life.
The Stretch is a well-written drama with an excellent cast and striking staging. As a political argument, however, it seems playwrights, like politicians, must beware of ‘’Events, dear boy, events’’. The play is staged in a week when the media is full of scare stories about how austerity cuts in the police service have resulted in a terrifying increase in knife crime and, locally, how Piccadilly Gardens is now regarded as a ‘no-go’ area. It is possible, therefore, that audiences might not be receptive to the subtleties of considering whether the judicial system is fit for purpose and The Stretch might simply add to the populist sense of anger at the political system as a whole.