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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Inside Bitch
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs  February-March 2019 and touring

Clean Break, the theatre company devoted to plays by, with and for female prisoners and ex-prisoners, has been operating for four decades. Stacy Gregg and Deborah Pearson, who conceived and directed Inside Bitch, are experienced professionals, and the cast have all had theatrical experience (not just with Clean Break) since their prison days.

So why is Inside Bitch such a mess?

We have to assume it is a matter of deliberate choices. With the intention of counteracting the cliches and excesses of women-in-prison films and TV shows, the creators of Inside Bitch deliberately went for an unpolished made-by-amateurs effect in the name of realism and verisimilitude.

Unfortunately it doesn't work. Inside Bitch is a collection of ideas that might somehow be put into a play, but not the play itself.

Sequence after sequence either goes nowhere, doesn't connect with what came before or after it, or at best is a self-contained moment. Although there is a nominal through-line, as the women supposedly prepare and pitch a 'realistic' women-in-prison TV series, most of the scenes could be reshuffled in a different order, and few are particularly convincing.

An early scene, for example, has the women studying a how-to-construct-a-play textbook chart and then trying to plug bits of their separate experiences into it to create a plot line. But the bits they plug in do not clearly belong in one spot on the chart rather than another, they do not add up to a coherent plot, and the whole idea of that story line is then dropped and never mentioned again.

It takes a lot of hard work for experienced performers to act like amateurs who have not been sufficiently directed and rehearsed, and without irony I salute the actors for effectively creating that illusion.

I can only point out, however, that what small contribution the constant pattern of missed cues, flubbed lines and awkward movements makes toward verisimilitude, it is outweighed by the vague awkward embarrassment it risks generating in an audience that wants to be supportive.

The hour-long play is punctuated by recordings of actual prisoner interviews and video sequences that, simply by being more polished and effectively edited, are too often more engaging than the onstage action.

There are successful moments, both comic – one woman's account of how she developed a reputation for toughness just by spending all her free time in the gym – and touching – another's realisation of what visiting her was doing to her children. But they're really not enough.

At one point one of the women takes us on an imagined tour of her prison – the workshops were here, the canteen there, and so on – only to have each of the others talk over her with descriptions of their own prison blocks, until there is just a contentless cacophony of voices.

Like that moment, Inside Bitch as a whole tries to capture a complex reality but winds up telling us too little.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Inside Bitch - Royal Court Theatre 2019
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