Monday, November 15, 2010

Charged at Soho Theatre

Founded thirty years ago, Clean Break is a theatre company that specialises in the staging of new writing intended to reflect the experiences of women whose lives have come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Their recent productions include plays by Chloe Moss and Lucy Kirkwood (the superb 
It Felt Empty..., so atmospherically staged at the Arcola) and their current project is particularly ambitious in scope, taking the form of six short plays, which have been grouped into two separate cycles to be staged in various spaces around Soho Theatre

As with similar theatrical collages some of the pieces are better realised than others, but while there is an inevitable bittiness and some of the pieces feel constrained, the interesting dramatic parallels between the plays and some strong acting go a good way towards remedying this.

The first of these triple bills features new work by Rebecca Pritchard, Winsome Pinnock and Chloe Moss, of which Pritchard’s play, Dream Pill, staged by Tessa Walker in the theatre’s basement restaurant is perhaps the most harrowing and unsettling. Written from the perspective of two young Nigerian girls, both under ten, the play wades into the ugly world of child prostitution. It’s potently performed by Danielle Vitalis and Samantha Pearl, both all too convincingly child-like in their movements and interactions, the former fixing her bright, questioning eyes on various audience members. In the context of the play, the noise from the bar above suddenly takes on an ominous air and the sight of Pearl tottering unsteadily up the stairs in ill-fitting heels is almost too much to take.

Chloe Moss’ Fatal Light is less unrelenting in its intensity but still capable of emotional rawness. Unfolding in reverse order, it tells the story of a young mother with mental health problems who ends up in prison and features another strong performance from Ashley McGuire as the stoic grandmother. It contains some intriguing dramatic seeds but it feels a bit thin in its current state, as if it could have been fleshed out further.

Winsome Pinnock’s Taken, performed in the theatre’s top floor studio space, is another cross-generational tale and one that provides an interesting counterpoint to Moss’ play. A twitchy young girl towing a pram turns up on recovering addict Della’s door claiming to be her daughter. Whereas the bonds between the women in Moss’ play were strong and the daughter’s mental health issues was slowly driving the family apart, in Pinnock’s play abandonment and substance abuse have taken their toll on the characters and memory is untrustworthy. Caroline Steinbeis’ production only partially brings out the play’s increasing dreamlike quality and the ambiguities of the text feel like they could have been made more of.

The second cycle features work by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, EV Crowe, and Sam Holcroft. Crowe, whose new full length play, Kin, opens at the Royal Court next week, focuses her attention on what it is to be a woman in today’s police force. InDoris Day, flatmates Anna and Daisy, both police women, have different coping strategies. The play examines the inherent contradictions of their situation. There’s the necessity of working as part of a team and all that entails, but there’s also the question of workplace sexism and whether this should be tolerated or challenged. This is where they differ, over the point on which it becomes necessary to raise one’s voice and risk the fallout. The play circles its subject, looking at it from several angles and providing a plausible sketch of what it is to be a woman in a male-dominated profession, but it feels rather hurried and abrupt. In a nice piece of continuity Emma Noakes who plays Daisy, also plays the consoling policewoman in Fatal Light.

Sam Holcroft’s Dancing Bears, a play about gang violence, also explores the idea of female solidarity in a macho culture. Track-suit clad with faces half hidden by hoods, the four female performers begin by playing young male gang member who swagger about the place (they are described in the text as ‘walking on hot coals’), forever shifting from foot to foot with a kind of itchy urgency. Then one by one these volatile young men peel of their hoodies to become young women, who tired of being misused and impregnated by the men around them, draw together, forming a gang of their own, only to begin to emulate the male behaviour that initially alienated them.

The central play of this second triple bill is Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s That Almost Unnameable Lust, probably the most wholly satisfying piece of either cycle. The play is set in a women’s prison where a well-intentioned but na├»ve young writer tries to get the female inmates to open up and share their experiences with her. Elegantly written, with some subtle and moving passages, Lenkiewicz's play serves to crystallise something about theatre of this kind, about the whole exercise in fact, in the way it subtly interrogates the writer’s role, the inevitable impotence of the observer. Empathy only counts for so much.

While the plays have their individual weaknesses, viewed together they paint a compelling picture of a system that fails women on numerous levels (some alarming statistics were provided on suicide and self-harm rates in women’s prisons). Of the two cycles, the second has the edge but there's a lot to be said for seeing both if you can.

Reviewed for musicOMH

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