A KNIGHTSBRIDGE REDEMPTION….
Quotes from critics are always helpful. This one has “Drop dead funny and informative” on its flyer: not from a Spencer or Billington but signed “Inmates from Brixton Prison”. It was taken in there a year ago, and now this unlikely theatre, youth and mentoring outfit in a once ‘redundant’ church behind Harrods has a fresh production. That inmate imprimatur is significant because Darren Raymond, Artistic Director of Intermission, sets his 80-minute piece inside a modern UK prison, mainly in one cell. So it had to feel right: to catch the sweaty pointless claustrophobia, despair, disgrace and bravura bitterness of jail, and the black humour of men locked up.
Which, I reckon, it does. The opening parole scene with a weary governor and a severe, sarcastic woman officer (Janine Gillion) fairly catches both the mouthy indignant frustration of prisoners and the half-despairing patience of the staff who deal with them. We see the hero (played by Raymond with a staccato, rap-speed stroppiness) messing up his parole interview with a refusal, as the weary governor jots down “to comprehend the definition of punishment”. Nor does he admit any responsibility for the arsenal of guns found in his possession or the consequent death of a 12-year-old. He snarls that the officers are all just “police rejects and fat kids who got bullied at school”. He despises everything.
He has also, in an overcrowded prison, managed to be so violent and uncontrollable that he has had no cellmate for ten years of his sentence of eighteen. Gillion, with persuasive bribery, manages to get him to accept a young rookie, Charlie (Eddie Thompson). The first hint of strangeness, in a nice detail, comes when the officers can’t make the ID machine take Charlie’s photo. He comes up blank…
But then in the cell the play becomes a two-hander between this angry inhospitable Ryder, violently possessive of everything from his second bunk to his soap, and the naive lad who has to be told about prison ways like trading cigarettes for double ‘canteen’ credits to get luxuries like orange squash. Quite early on, Charlie says he won’t be there long because he is, in fact, an angel: to which a furiously horrified Ryder cries “A bible-bashing Jehovan’s witness wacko!” and dismisses him as crazy. Eddie Thompson, honed by five years with Intermission Youth Theatre and now in the full company, puts in a superb performance in this enigmatic part: naturalistically naif, good-humoured, nervous in a way which could mean he is a real inmate but could also denote an angel on a first mission. There are some good shivery moments as Ryder slightly softens towards his “nutter” cellmate over several days: not least when Charlie seems supernaturally to know the name of the older man’s wife, and we think “aha! an angel”. But “It’s tattooed on your arm” sputters the youth..
Raymond himself was inside many years ago – indeed first encountered the transformative power of theatre there with the London Shakespeare Workout projects. Since then he has matured into a serious and accomplished actor and created with Intermission some fabulous riffs on the Bard – HMP Macbeth, and before it the “Playground” version of a Midsummer Night’s dream. Here, though, he has gone back to a direct, naturalistic portrait of a prison world, and frames it in his own vision of redemption. And yes, in the final moments the redemptiveness gets you. The over-suave might find its religious underpinning and happy conclusion sentimental. But they’ve never been locked up for years and really needed to believe in hope.
In a week when we learned that reoffending by ex-prisoners has doubled, a good one to see.
020 7823 8979 firstname.lastname@example.org. to sat 14th