Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 23 June 2018
Lady Anne Tree was the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, sister in law of Kathleen Kennedy and Debo Mitford: grand as they come. Kept from school, like the Mitford girls she grew a maverick streak and learned from the bereavements of war to think for herself. She was a lifelong prison visitor, and at home she found artistic and meditative relief in fine needlework, so it occurred to her there was one group who had a lot of time to fill… So 20 years ago she founded Fine Cell Work. It teaches prisoners fine needlepoint and quilting and sells it in the top shops. So the men (and some women, but most prisoners are men) can build up a modest fund for when they are freed.
Full disclosure: I am a patron of it, and have watched a group as ladies from the Royal School of Needlework taught, advised and provided materials (but not scissors…) to the most unlikely of seamsters for the next week’s in-cell work. It is extraordinary and inspiring, and hard to believe that getting approval took Lady Anne 30 years of being treated as a “tiresome woman”.
Esther Freud’s debut play, drawn from the foundress’ letters and diaries and from observing today’s groups, is an impression of those early trials and, in the background, her struggles with the Home Office (where junior staff framed her increasingly furious letters: it’s not every day a Duke’s daughter calls you a load of shits). At last, under John Major, permission was given. The rest is history and a great deal of beautiful work. Because as the redoubtable Lady said, it had to be “top notch, none of this church hall nonsense”.
Sinead Cusack is dream casting, with her strong humorous face, drop-dead timing and ability to convey personal stress and frustration behind the gung-ho, matter-of-fact manner of the old aristocracy. She’s got you, from the moment when she first appears in a sensible brown coat and solid hat in front of Liz Cooke’s layered set of wire mesh and bars. This set is tough enough for vigorous chin-ups and rings often with the frustrated, angry prison percussion of banging and echoic shouting. Director Gaby Dellal (better known for film work) punctuates and underlines the action this way; the tiny theatre easily creates the sense of a claustrophobic cell and bleak corridors behind.
Around Cusack we have Michael Nardone as Lukasz the Pole,”strongest man in the prison” and his scared new cellmate Tommy (Frankie Wilson), in denial about his conviction. There is Trevor Laird as tough Len, the wheelchair- bound Busby, and Victoria Elizabeth as the troubled trans “Denise” . One by one they succumb to the project and become its cheerleaders. Freud treats the process carefully, using the reality of things actual inmates have said down the years.
At times in the first half I had (being partisan) an uneasy fear that it was not growing enough narrative energy, but becoming ironically imprisoned in its novelistic desire to show gradual personal change. But there is fascination in that too, and the physicality of the situation is especially striking: brawls and chin-ups and thrown punches are set against the fine, fiddly motor skills of the needleworkers’ hands . You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to see how benign that could be to the scrambled angry brains in a macho environment. The perfectionism of Lady Anne is entertainingly set against the well-evoked grim squalor of the cells. When Len snarls angrily “I made a pig’s ear of it!” rather than cooing encouragingly she trills “Oh, dear, so you did. Unpick!”. When he man refuses to help a newcomer she says “Oh come on!” like any schoolmistress.
The unprisonerlike virtues of neatness and patience grow, and the sense that it is worth – in embroidery or in life – being willing to start again. The names of colours shine out against the grey-green dreariness: emerald, cinnamon, Aquamarine, burnt umber, scarlet.. The sense of an outside world’s appreciation grows too. Busby gets the first letter since his mother died, from a customer who cannot know his name. And when the prison officer sceptically asks “How many embroidery-loving, criminal-sympathising, letter-writing people are out there, do you think?” Lady Anne replies “Legions!”.
And so there have proved to be. It is quite hard to review this play simply as drama without just succumbing, dazzled, to the fineness of its late heroine and her charity. Sometimes I did wonder just how useful it was of the author to appliqué on little bits of Lady Anne’s travel diaries and the loss of her dog: Cusack can create a real and rounded character without that obvious kind of help. But it does find dramatic catharsis, in the second short half, and leave you both triumphant, and thinking harder about prison than most people do. Result.
box office http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/
to 23 june Rating Four