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