It is 34 years now since two women prisoners founded the theatre company Clean Break, aiming to use drama to shed light on the issues surrounding women and the criminal justice system. Since then, the company has consistently achieved the rare feat of tackling these issues through well-rounded plays that are much more than agit prop.
This, the latest Clean Break commission, is no exception. Directed by Lucy Morrison and written by Katie Hims following a series of workshops with women inmates at HMP Holloway, it’s a neat, intimate family tale. The titular Billy (Danusia Samal) is just home from prison, only to find that she isn’t welcome there. Her mother Ingrid (Christine Entwisle) is busy preparing for her upcoming wedding to a ponytailed spiritualist, and won’t have Billy in the house – much to the horror of her adoring younger sister Amber (Naomi Ackie).
Designer Joanna Scotcher’s set – complete with full-size caravan, scrubby grass, and stacked boxes of cut-price alcohol – brilliantly evokes the urban back garden where the family secrets are brought to light. The performances are beautifully pitched, with a rare ease and naturalism. Hims’s writing, too, really shines, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments (Ingrid spends a good part of the play advising her overweight sister on how to winch herself out of a too-tight dress).
I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but this is a superb 75 minutes of theatre, whose impact – like all the best political drama – comes only through the complete believability of its characters.
By Laura Barnett