Monday, 22 November 2010


 “Punish me or pray for me. Lock me up or look the other way. I’m not going anywhere.”

Six short plays, each thirty minutes long. Three in the afternoon, Charged 1 and three in the evening, Charged 2, at the Soho Theatre. This is the acclaimed current commission by Camden-based theatrical company Clean Break. Founded in 1979, Clean Break has established itself as a serious writing / commissioning theatre company which works with women  whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system and also women still in prison, through drama and writing workshops . It offers ex-offenders   mentoring programmes with well-known and respected playwrights . By “researching” with women in the prison estate, Clean Break is only too well acquainted with the issues that affect a woman once she enters the criminal justice system, the heartbreak of missing a child so much on her first night in prison that she hallucinates; the profound effects of misogyny in the police force; a writer who goes into prison to teach prisoners for “release “ and for “free association”  of their experiences” through the written word,  are just three of the stories explored.
The themes are the same, whether it’s about  the plight of girl gang members, being trafficked as a nine-year old child or a junky mother, meeting her maybe /maybe not  daughter who was taken away by the authorities and adopted, decades later. The underlying subject, which festers like a scar, being constantly picked and picked open again, is disturbing. Whether in or out of prison, women “at large” have no rights and are generally treated as objects. .  We are shown, over and over again that whatever  little we manage to wrench from the male hierarchy which makes the rules and enforces them, in order to survive in their world,  we have we have to fight and struggle to maintain.

Another theme is loss, the loss of wasted lives, of the sadness and pain that affects all the lives of those who are trapped in the system whether they are victims of it or whether they are trying to administer a man-shaped hole of a   punitive system, and forcing women into these ill-fitting preconceptions of justice and punishment.  We witness the devastating ripple effect, like a malevolent butterfly inflicting typhoons and hurricanes through the beatings of its wings, in other far-distant hearts.     Dream Pill by  Rebecca Prichard is an accomplished, heart stopping story about child trafficking and its vile consequences. Amongst the mostly white (I might have been the token brown face in the audience plus one other woman and there was one other black woman who attended) journalistic audience, there were a few teary eyes and sniffling noses. It was unbearably difficult to watch.  The sing-a-long style of speaking, in which nine year old little girls communicate with each other was a stark and horrific foil to the moment when they talked about the white man,

“their blood is white and sticky,
 I can tell you how to make them go quick, just go yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah. Like that.”

There are funny ha-ha moments when the audience laughs, but the whole issue of locking up women, of brutalizing them and further criminalizing them is one so close to my own heart and experiences, the laughter felt uncomfortable. I sat on the edge of my seat  throughout   Chloe Moss’ Fatal Light, the story of a woman who dies in prison and the consequences of that for her 6 year old daughter and her own mother in whose care  the child has been left. The story begins with an inexperienced police woman knocking at the door to break the bad news to grandma, and flinching when the old lady tries to hug her, desperate for comfort and consolation. But who wants to share the ugly pain of deviant women and their sordid stories. We want our justice sanitized, our criminals warehoused and the process of punishment white-washed and ultimately hidden away from us. Facts and figures such as there being about 5 000 women in prison at any given time are discreetly  ignored, except by vociferous campaigners and certain sector and gender specific  charities working towards changing sentencing and social policy.

The other play which  stands out, in its head-bangingly precise portrayal of the boredom of prison life is  by Rebecca   , That Almost Unameable Lust, a story of two lifers doing time in  a closed prison, attending writing classes, given by a writer who is engrossed in her own story and indeed her own forthcoming book, one of the woman expresses the frustration of her world being so different:

“...No. No actually I’m not all right.  You’re talking about some prophet in a cave. And you’re very nice and your book will have a shiny cover.  WH Smith and all that. Picture of you on the back”

The writer, well-intentioned though she is misses the point and that these two women can’t speak of their stories, can’t tell them in the way she would like so they evolve structured, orderly with a beginning a middle and an end. Life is messy, not like a fairy tale.

Charged 1 and 2 left me feeling slightly queasy and very shell-shocked.

 It’s essential viewing but Clean Break and the Soho Theatre have missed the point slightly by pricing out the people who need to see this body of work.  If all they are trying to attract to this extravaganza of deviancy and dysfunction is a white, do-gooding- middle-class audience then it works. Having spoken to a few workers “in” the criminal justice industry who have stated the ticket price is too high (it escalates the longer into the run the performance goes) , there might have been some consideration as to how they could have better reached their target audience.  The production is touring in prisons, so hopefully more people will get to see it outside the rarefied inner sanctum of the Soho Theatre’s boundaries, people who matter and whose lives have been touched.

Charged is at the Soho Theatre from November 10 – 27 2010
For more information please see

1 comment:

  1. Hi Virtual Factory,

    My name is Amanda and I work at Clean Break - it's really great to hear your thoughts on Charged and I am glad you enjoyed the pieces and found them thought-provoking.

    I wanted to respond particularly to your comments on the pricing of tickets for Charged.
    We are keen that as wide a range of people as possible see our work and have made a lot of efforts to ensure that people aren't excluded due to cost- all the tickets in the first week and second weeks of the run were at discounted prices, with cheaper tickets the earlier you book, and further disocunts for the matinee performances. We also offer all our ex-students special discounted £5 tickets.

    Hope this has answered some of your concerns, and I hope that you will continue to support our work. Some of our ex-students are performing a curtain raiser to the show this Friday and Saturday night at 6.30pm which is free to attend; hope you can make it!