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.
So why is Inside Bitch such a
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.
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