After the runaway international success of her play Prima Facie (which just completed critically acclaimed runs on the West End and Broadway starring Jodie Comer), lawyer-turned-playwright Suzie Miller has returned to the stage where it all began: Griffin Theatre Company’s SBW Stables Theatre as part of the company's bumper 2023 season.
Jailbaby, a “spiritual sequel” to Prima Facie, follows the literal trials and tribulations of AJ, a young man who makes a series of (innocent and not-so-innocent) mistakes that lead him to jail. Sequels are notoriously tricky territory, and unfortunately, this one doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor.
Miller’s knack for building tension is undeniable...
We open on AJ (Anthony Yangoyan), narrating the events of a break-in. Sound design by Phil Downing is a relentless loud banging that escalates the stakes. We hear, through a punchy, rhythmic monologue, that AJ is frightened, that he is only supposed to be on lookout for a simple robbery. Then, he sees the big smart TV, two iPhones, some expensive things on shelves – into an IKEA bag they go. The middle-class woman of the house (Lucia Mastrantone) catches AJ and his two accomplices for long enough to see AJ’s face, and it all goes downhill from there.
Running alongside AJ’s story is that of the smart-TV-owning Seth (also Anthony Angoyan, with a Nintendo Switch in hand). Described by his father (Anthony Taufa) as “a weird kid”, Seth sells Ritalin at school and doesn’t have many friends. The inference is that Seth makes mistakes too, and yet he doesn’t end up in the prison system. It’s a poignant comparison, but it never eventuates into anything more scathing than “the law is for some, but not for others” – an argument made by Miller in her previous work, but also by many others in countless legal dramas.
Miller’s knack for building tension is undeniable, with monologue scenes in the style of Prima Facie paired with Downing’s ABC-TV-drama-esque sound bringing an urgency to AJ’s break-in, his trial, and the violence he experiences in jail. The only problem is that the words he speaks in these monologues that (which take up most of the play’s runtime) aren’t always consistent with his character, and they’re fairly heavily used to labour Miller’s points. Where Tessa the barrister (from Prima Facie) regales us with tales of the win, the chase, and the violence done to her in floral, lofty tones – AJ is confusingly rough, “young” and poetic all at the same time. When he has just been brutally assaulted in jail, he bluntly tells us: “I’ve been raped”. The overall tone of the dialogue is difficult to follow, which puts an unfortunate barrier up between AJ’s character and an audience wanting to feel for him. He becomes more of a lesson than a person, which sends the play into the didactic territory that Prima Facie only teetered on the edge of falling into.
That isn’t for lack of trying on Angoyan’s part, he plays both AJ and Seth with as much conviction as he can, and still manages to portray a likeable young person that doesn’t deserve the treatment he gets as a “jailbaby”. Taufa and Mastrantone similarly bring their dedication and skill to multiple roles, playing a variety of role model/support network characters including AJ’s soccer coach, Legal-Aid lawyer (Olivia, who is perhaps the most fleshed out character, economically sympathetic and fast-talking) and Seth’s mother.
Design by Isabel Hudson places the action on a grey, institutional stage divided into two levels. Double-sided mirrors and fluorescent lights line the top of the back wall of the Stables’ peculiar triangular stage, and a single, white stool sits in the corner. On the wall nearest the audience entry hangs a Socceroos jersey, fluorescent bar lights and a black telephone. Costumes, also by Hudson, are simple and realistic, emphasising the parallels between AJ and Seth, their mothers, and the father figures in their lives as they change one aspect of their appearance or body language. Sight line issues meant that scenes featuring an actual double-sided mirror lit from behind – including a scene in which AJ is picked from a line up, and later given advice from an ex-con – lose their full impact for half the audience.
Miller’s work is commendable in its aim to inform and educate through art – with plays like Prima Facie and last year’s RGB: Of Many, One (Sydney Theatre Company) focussing on the inequality and social context around our legal systems. It’s important and necessary work, but it can run the risk of alienating its audience by too obviously wanting to teach us something, rather than giving us a more nuanced insight into a complicated person, and a complicated system – which Jailbaby unfortunately does. If you can forgive its blunt approach, it is a confronting play with urgent questions worth asking of the way we value people over property, and the consequences of those misplaced values.
Jailbaby plays at Griffin's SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, from July 7 to August 19. Tickets range from $20-$72 and are selling fast over here.