Matt Woodhead


Lung is one of the most important documentary drama companies in Britain. Their Chilcot included voices of Iraqis and the families of soldiers alongside the sometimes shocking revelations of the Chilcot Inquiry. In 2018, their play Trojan Horse chronicled the disgraceful way politicians, assisted by the national media, terrorised educationalists in Birmingham in their determination to stigmatise Muslims.

Their latest dramatic entry into the fray of contemporary political issues is Woodhill, which exposes some of the atrocities of the British prison system.

The central thread of the play is the story of three men who died in Milton Keynes Woodhill prison. The show opens and closes with the voices of their relatives (performed by actors) who have campaigned for justice. Other voices provide a context. They include a prison officer, a nurse, a magistrate and a governor.

We never see any of those speaking. They are voiceovers to four dancers who move packages from one shelf to another on a stage made to look like a storage room.

Occasionally, we hear a name from among the list of 33 prisoners who died in Woodhill since it opened in 1992.

A recognition of the wider systemic issue of prisons that ought to have us demanding they be bulldozed is given by an architect explaining how their design was shaped by the values of Victorian stupidity and an ombudsman who says finding justice in the prison system is “like operating a sausage machine. Churning out investigations into deaths… We were toothless... No way of imposing sanctions on prisons. No way of enforcing consequences.”

As if that isn't enough, a Chief Inspector of prisons asks, “why has the prison population doubled since Maggie Thatcher? Are we twice as dangerous or twice as violent?... Prison sentences are inflating. Men are serving more and more time.”

The selection from interviews is impressive and often moving. It paints a shocking picture of Woodhill and the whole sorry mess of the British prison system.

The theatre company also tries to give us an unusual visual and sound accompaniment to these voices. The intense and heavy soundscape suggests oppressiveness, but, apart from lacking the nuance of the script, it can be distracting and at times overwhelm some of the meaning, some of the words.

Although the dance sequence set in a warehouse is an accurate metaphor for the treatment of prisoners, it is also distracting, lacks dramatic tension and doesn’t have much relevance to the central exposé of a vicious system of imprisonment.

However, this thoughtful and compassionate account of a terrible system of injustice is necessary, important and well worth seeing.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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