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Review of Imprisoned at Barons Court Theatre

ImprisonedBefore Imprisoned gets underway, the atmosphere created is contrary to what one might expect, with pre-show recorded music in the form of (amongst other songs) Blondie’s Heart of Gold and The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. But the prison breakout that I thought this sort of ambience might lead to never materialised. In addition, this turned out to be two plays rather than one. The first, called Something For The Men, goes out of its way to identify itself with the 1980s, with references to Margaret Thatcher and the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer. It was the Smith Corona typewriter on an office desk that took me back – I loved those electronic typewriters, where you could pre-set what you wanted to type, up to 7,000 characters at a time if I recall correctly, and then sit back and watch the metal types hit the ribbon and the ribbon hit the paper at top speed.

Whatever it is that takes the audience back to those days – assuming, of course, that one happens to have been around long enough in the first place – Vicky Barwell (Meg Lake) is a warm and chatty character from an era in which being working class as opposed to any other class was still just about worth discussing. The narrative becomes broadly repetitive – not quite Groundhog Day, but there is a series of things going wrong in Vicky’s life to the point where even she admits she’s been in the same position before. It is difficult, though, to fault a character who doesn’t give up trying, and does her level best to maintain a positive outlook despite so many setbacks.

The first few scenes were almost shockingly short and economical with words, but the play soon settles into a moderately paced stride soon enough. The ‘critical incident’ in the play is a horrifying crime against the person. The emphasis is rightly on post-incident life, but this does not in any way dull or cheapen the impact of what happened. It’s a busy set, with key points in the calendar year marked out – the story covers at least a couple of years.

I could not, however, clearly see how a need for companionship and its consequences could be seen as a form of being ‘imprisoned’, and I did not realise a feminist ideology was being asserted until quite late in the play. I suspect some others may have spotted it coming a mile off. I am still not sure there was a deliberately feminist ideology being propagated, as the main message seemed to me to be about not being afraid to strike out on one’s own, irrespective of who you are.

Your Sacrament Divine has nothing to do with someone discovering religion whilst incarcerated, despite its title. Helen McPherson (Brig Bennett) engages well, and frequently, with the audience, moving about and making full use of the theatre space. There’s eye contact and the occasional breaching of the fourth wall, and, annoyingly, a very loud and persistent hissing noise. It’s the sort of thing that was used during The Troubles as an interrogation method, and apparently at Guantanamo Bay. The problem with it here is mostly that it is sometimes difficult to hear what is being said, which gave the impression that what was being said really wasn’t that important. I note, without further comment, there is a dramatic point being made about voices not being heard.

Both plays are punctuated by singing, the first generously and the second sparingly. What’s particularly interesting in the second play – from what I did manage to hear – is a story that meanders at surface level but gives a full account, in context, of what happened and how she ended up locked up behind bars. Helen did what she did, but there’s a whole back story: think Elphaba in Wicked. Elsewhere, I felt compelled to call again for a moratorium on slow-motion movements on the London stage, even if, as I fully appreciate, there is no practical way of enforcing such a rule.

The plays as presented here are lightly sprinkled with humour. And if I didn’t really pick up anything new or groundbreaking, there can never be enough reminders of how difficult life can be, and that we must make the most of the cards we’ve been dealt with. A strong and absorbing production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Imprisoned is a new pair of plays by writer Marie Hale and directed by Kasia Różycki (Off the Cliff) and Hugh Allison (The Yellowchair Performance Experience). In this double-bill, Hale looks at imprisonment – both practical and emotional.

In Something for the Men, we are in the early 1980s. Stuck in a dead-end job, Vicky shares stories about the disappointments in her life. Life takes an unexpected turn when Lou, an independent woman, contradicts Vicky’s beliefs. Vicky is born at the wrong time, but she soon begins to realise that she can be a person in her own right. In Your Sacrament Divine, Helen advises new inmates on prison life whilst waiting to be taken to the High Court of Justice. Helen has been dealt a bad hand in life, but not even solitary confinement can diminish her strength of character.
Former stand-up comedian Marie Hale has had five monologues and two duologues performed at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge, and a radio play, Stand Up, Young Comedian, on Radio North.

IMPRISONED
August 16th – September 4th 2016, Barons Court Theatre

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