It was not the easiest auditorium for the actors. The multi-faith centre was more like a corridor than a conventional theatre, so it required a mighty effort of projection for their voices to reach the back. It was not the easiest audience, either.
Unused to theatre-going conventions, these playgoers kept up a constant hubbub – not the roars of a football crowd, though very much like the chatter of cricket-watchers. On the plus side, there was little chance of anyone walking out: nearly everyone in the room was a guest of Her Majesty, who takes a stern view of disappearing tricks.
Anyway, for once the exit was not uppermost in their minds. The chatter was a sign of engagement. This play, set in a prison cell, spoke directly to the audience. And afterwards its subject strode down from the back of the hall to speak to them, too. His name was Chris Lewis and he used to be a famous cricketer.
This was an unusual venue for the first night (well, first afternoon) of a play starting a national tour. But where better? HMP Portland, Dorset, is home to about 530 offenders, male, mostly under 30, muscular, tattooed and truculent, and sometimes inventively cheeky – and all at risk of spending many more chunks of their lives in places such as this.
Lewis is 51 now, though he still has his cool-dude air: slim man’s jeans, a decent-looking coat, a natty scarf. On his 25th birthday, in 1993, he made a hundred for England in Chennai, and he could bowl, too: the great New Zealander John Wright said he was the quickest he ever faced. Like several others in the era between Botham and Flintoff, he was hailed as the all-rounder who could lead England to glory.
He did play 32 Tests and 53 one‑dayers but glory did not often touch England in that era. Lewis became best known for his misfortunes/idiocies: getting sunstroke after shaving his head on a West Indies tour (“the prat without a hat”); turning up late; a weird business involving whistle-blowing on match-fixing (which rebounded, as whistle-blowing does); a disastrous comeback, aged 40.
And just after that, the biggest idiocy of all: trying to earn a quick £50,000 by agreeing to take a suitcase containing several cans of “fruit” from St Lucia to the UK. Cocaine, actually. He got 13 years, far longer than anyone in his audience, and served six and a half.
The play, The Long Walk Back, stars two fine actors: Martin Edwards as Lewis and Scott Bayliss as his cellmate/alter ego/imaginary friend. It was written by Dougie Blaxland, a name that lightly disguises James Graham-Brown, a county cricketer himself in the era just before Lewis and a man with a track record of intense, empathetic works about troubled sportsmen.
And this is a remarkable piece about a fall from not being quite WG Grace. It’s all there: the sparse set (a bunk and a toilet); the sense of entrapment; the despair; the risk of madness. When Edwards/Lewis talked about the effect of his imprisonment on his mum, one prisoner was heard crying. Blaxland’s previous cricket play, When the Eye Has Gone, was about the jolly, brilliant, doomed hero Colin Milburn who lost his career in a car crash and his life to drink.
That had more jokes than this one but the Lewis play has a trump card: the living, breathing, engaging, articulate man himself. And when the applause for the actors faded, he strode to the front to take questions, and these too had a peculiar intensity.
Does the system make people worse? “You’ve got to decide where you’re heading and focus on that.”
What made you stay positive? “I didn’t stay positive. The first year was so bad I knew I had to do something.”
Why don’t you use your fame to help us inside instead of doing a play? “I wouldn’t say I’m doing my bit. I’d say I’m doing a bit.”
This is an edited version; Lewis was never this terse. But even so it was possible to sense an unexpected distance between him and his audience. They didn’t see him so much as a soulmate or cellmate but as someone whose celebrity gave him a status beyond their reach. Not wholly true: “I can’t go on I’m A Celebrity …,” he told them. “Not allowed in Australia.”
His mantra is that his downfall was his own fault. “It was nothing to do with cricket, nothing to do with racism, nothing to do with other people. It was about me making the wrong choices,” he told me. But that is not the full answer.
When you probe, it becomes clear that Lewis – who came from Guyana to England aged 10 – always felt an outsider in the game, partly because of his own uneasiness with cricket’s saloon-bar culture: “I didn’t feel I fitted in. Is oddball the right word?” But he also sensed (and you have to drag this out of him) that he felt, in his time, English cricket still regarded black players with a bit of eye-rolling: gifted, yeah, but unreliable.
“I wouldn’t say it was colour. It was more about culture.” Either way, when cricket left him, he felt short of friends and options. To emphasise how the game has changed, the Professional Cricketers’ Association is among the angels supporting the play.
Bringing it to Portland came through a zestful (and cricket-loving) governor, Steve Hodson, who described the place to me – its workshops, its educational and sporting facilities, the Jailhouse Cafe (open to the public) , the sea views from the topmost cells – with the enthusiasm of a public-school head hoping I might send my child there. And Lewis himself had heard good reviews of Portland when he was on that grapevine.
Blaxland, with 30 other plays behind him, found this one stimulating and has relished Lewis’s own involvement. “It’s taken much longer than anything I’ve written before,” he said. “It’s been very important to get it right. Because he’s still alive – yet you don’t want to pull any punches. Chris has been involved since day one and been brilliant and innovative and very good at making sure we get the language right.”
The prisoners’ approbation suggested they had indeed done that – though Lewis himself was a bit shocked by the bunk: “Looks a bit posh to me,” he said. I am sure he will never have to worry about that again. But if the inmates think he is making a fortune from this, they know nothing of the economics of small-scale theatre. Lewis is starting to make a reputation as a motivational speaker but, though he has a USP, it is not the IPL.
The play deserves to be a great success and will work much better in more traditional spaces, though I fear the questions may be less heartfelt in Cheltenham, Bristol, Birmingham and Greenwich etc. (“Chris, what would you do about slow over-rates?”). Though perhaps someone will ask him again: “Did you get the £50,000?” He did not. “I think there’s always some excuse,” he added.
• The Long Walk Back, directed by Shane Morgan, is on at the Chipping Norton Theatre on Tuesday and touring: roughhousetheatre.com/the-long-walk-back