Donmar Warehouse, London – until 30 November 2019
Of all the well known flaws of our criminal justice system, one of the most glaring is how badly it fits women – though they are only around 7% of prison inmates. The great majority are non-violent, for things like fare dodging or TV licence evasion: others are abused or have been forced into drug dealing, and most are on short sentences that do nothing to stabilise their chaotic lives but mean losing jobs, sometimes children, disrupting a whole chain of lives. A recent inquest slammed lack of basic care when a young woman was not given prescribed medication; last month in Bronzefield another gave birth alone and saw her baby die.
The charity Clean Break, marking here its 40th anniversary, works with drama to elucidate, express and publicise these problems, not with sentimental blindness or Bad-Girls glamorisation but by examining lived experience.
Alice Birch’s play is written as a fat book of 100 scenes or playlets, to be used in any order and cross-casting by companies of all types. Director Maria Aberg weaves 30 together, some very brief: the effect, at its best is of the fracture of lives, the impossibility of making sense when your head is in chaos. Her writing is excellent, naturalistic and usually pacy.
A mother hears how her daughter has “met someone” but hasn’t admitted she has children. Later we see her again, terrified of him, kids outside in the car, begging access to a full refuge. Another is startled as her furious, impossible addict daughter breaks in to rob and scream at her – “it seemed easier than asking for help”. Later we learn of her end.
Another pleads vainly for her mother to take the grandkids and an awful sequel, unbearable in its self-justifying despair, is a later monologue. A street worker tells a sex worker to stay safe but she “doesn’t know what safe feels like” and suddenly, lyrically, talks of how she longs for the cosy whiteness of snow,
Only occasionally are we in prison – the set is fragmented, small rooms on two levels, a grim glass box of loneliness in one high corner. Once an angry irrational woman is restrained: at visiting time one has a litany of demands to take away everything that she might kill herself with.
A pregnant girl is told the good news – officialdom is not caricatured as brutal – that she can go to a mother and baby unit for the child’s first 18 months and may be released in time to leave with it. But her existing children can’t easily visit so far away. In a final brief scene we see an older mother whose daughter won’t forgive just because she finally “got her shit together 30 years too late”. Sometimes there are children, in and out of fostering.
The longest section – slightly overlong though its inconsequential cross-chat is bitterly satirical – rises eventually to a sharp dramatic conclusion. It is a dinner party of middleclass women . Couples, a police officer, a lawyer , two who were aid volunteers “for ten days”, a headteacher , a selfsatisfied gritty TV journalist. The outsider is a new girlfriend, possibly an ex inmate. At one point dealers bring cocaine and stay for some Ottolenghi and chat. At last from the outsider comes the accusation which one was yearning for : that they are rabid hypocrites all, their chic liberalism a “fucking offence to those of us who try…crying for people rather than listening”.
Well, we listened. It is tremendous ensemble work, physically expressive, verbally articulate, ripping off layers of smug delusion with elegant skill. If forced to single anyone out it would be Jackie Clune as an official figure, Jemima Rooper, and Thusitha Jayasundera with immense sad authority in various parts. Oh, and little Taya Tower, a deadpan tot with alarming command both of her lines and of a baseball bat laying about some chinaware.