Prison dramas can sometimes feel like doing time. That’s not the case in Stephanie Jacob’s tough, touching and witty new play.
Jacob’s focus is a disturbed young inmate in a Yorkshire women’s prison who has been banged up for kicking a musician half to death. At the start of her sentence, she seems to have similar plans for a snarling prison screw (played by Jacob). But thanks to her sweet-natured cell mate – a kind, uncomplicated ex-junkie – she reluctantly accepts her victim’s request to meet her.
Jacob’s story is as snappy as her hair-triggered heroine. She never loses sight of the character’s willingness and potential to demolish anyone and anything that stands in her way, and yet the tale is ever more tender. Dialogue is nailed firmly into scenes, fitting wit into the anguish. Even the screws – who have the potential for ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ cliché – include a soft suburban officer whose wife rations his biscuits.
No less impressive is Lucy Richardson’s direction. The play kicks off raucously with jailhouse clamour and you feel like you’re in for a rough stretch. But, with the direction – and angular violin music between scenes – it soon finds its footing. Designer Ali McDowell presents an all-too-credible prison set of magnolia breeze block walls splashed with moss, and there’s sweet work from Grace Willis as the kind but illiterate cell mate.
But the most impressive thing in this production is Josephine Rogers’ central performance. She’s a wiry, twitchy sparrow of a thug, barcoded for hardness by blue tattoos. Her whole body is twisted into the wreckage of her character and yet her face has radiant beauty too. Behind the scowling front there
is vulnerability and even tenderness. Just don’t try telling her.