Alexis Michalik is the man of the moment. His Edmond de Bergerac, currently on tour, offers an exuberantly fanciful account of the life of Cyrano’s creator. Hard on its heels comes another of his Paris hits in which, in Pamela Hargreaves’s version, a vision of life between prison walls is transplanted to an English setting. While acknowledging the play’s cleverness, I question its cavalier treatment of a serious subject.
It begins well enough with a bumptious director, Richard, quizzing the audience on the purpose of theatre. He settles on the idea that “we are here to experience an emotion”. We then see Richard – accompanied by Jane, his ex-wife, and Alice, a social worker – visiting a maximum-security prison to direct a theatre class. The problem is that only two inmates turn up, of whom one, Kevin, is almost excessively keen, while the other, Angel, maintains a truculent silence.
There is legitimate fun to be had out of the idea of inexperienced pros trying to persuade prisoners to do drama-school exercises such as simulating animals or assuming the identity of another person. But when Richard asks everyone in the room to tell their own story, the play takes a different turn. Kevin, convicted of armed robbery, reveals his rage against society. Richard comes clean about a wayward career that has led him to become head of the fictional Nada (Norwich Academy of Dramatic Art). Above all, Alice discloses that she has insinuated herself into the prison on a personal mission.
Critical etiquette forbids me to say more, but my doubts about the play are several. Esther Freud showed last year in Stitchers that it is possible to write a good play about the practical difficulties faced by prison visitors, but Michalik skates lightly over that topic. He also seems torn between creating an ingenious plot and addressing the subject of crime and punishment. Much of the later action is taken up with the plight of Angel who, we are led to believe, has been unjustly sentenced to 28 years for murder. We are never told the nature of the mysterious “cause” that has led him to violence. It also strikes me that Angel is more in need of a good lawyer than the therapeutic role-play that Michalik shows him finally accepting.
The play has more twists than a bent corkscrew. But when it comes to examining the harsh realities of life in and after prison – something a company such as Clean Break has been focusing on for 40 years – it treats them as little more than an excuse for theatrical trickery. The piece is niftily staged by Ché Walker, who also plays the vainglorious Richard. Summer Strallen, who lights up any stage she is on, and Emma Pallant are very good as the inquisitive Alice and the long-suffering Jane. I also can’t fault Declan Perring as the impetuous Kevin, Victor Gardener as the far-from-devilish Angel and Rio Kai as an onstage musician. But, in the end, the play is the victim of its own ingenuity. If you take the action literally, it doesn’t make much sense (who sanctioned this prison visit?). If, on the other hand, it is meant to be an elaborate fantasy, that hardly seems the right response to the burning issue of how and why we lock people up.