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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Co-devised by Stacey Gregg, and Deborah Pearson Camilla Clark’s design with circular table forming two half-crescents and uniforms (glitzy turquoise affairs) is lit by Natasha Chivers with video by Edie Morris, choreography by Yassmin V Foster and voice coach Emma Woodvine. Till March 23rd.


It’s five years since Clean Break Theatre were last at the Royal Court Upstairs, with Vivienn Franzmann’s superb Pests.


With Inside Bitch co-devisers Stacey Gregg, and Deborah Pearson have conceived something very different, with four actors who’ve experienced prison life and interact with the devisers of this whirligig of a piece.


It’s thus far less dramatically conceived through the refraction of a single writer, more raw and unarguably more authentic. It’s also highly structured enough for actors to vary and select some of the material, since the vast text seems more like a manual with illustrations to take away than a text proper. It’s even in colour. Oh and there’s popcorn for lucky audience members.


We start with an aria from the Marriage of Figaro and we end there, as if a life somehow reft from this one is the signal note. It’s difficult to interpret this precisely – a comment on soaring aspiration, of cultural deprivation, the refracted sentiment we view women prisoners through All these. But it’s attached to a prisoner too and their witness Jade Small, who along with Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TeriAnn Oudjar propel the story through individual witness, or, far more frequently as a cheery ensemble. And that apparent comedy is the point of how the work ends too.


Camilla Clark’s design with circular table forming two half-crescents and uniforms (glitzy turquoise affairs) mean that parodying all the prison dramas – the audience are invited to name them – is de rigeur from the start. ) It’s lit by Natasha Chivers with video by Edie Morris, choreography by Yassmin V Foster and voice coach Emma Woodvine.


Naturally those stereotypes you’re invited to throw back are treated with a tick list, sometimes laughed out of this very select court, sometimes ‘yeah, done that’, a tick-list of authentication that’s touching and funny, demolishing most myths and allowing a dew to stand. Signally the butch prison dyke running the wing’ is laughed out but never wholly disavowed. And more potently, how a gang of pretty girls terrorize Small till there’s a night with a bit of darkness and broken glass.


After we’re treated to a range of comic takes on inside outside, so ‘Shawshanks’ ‘Pre-Production Locked Up’ ’Card Games’ ‘Verbatim monologues’ and ‘Tour of Inside Bitch’ lag up neon-flashing deconstructions of prison life. ‘You’ve seen Orange Is the New Black. You’ve seen Locked Up. You’ve seen Bad Girls… We’ve got the real shit, and trust me, it’s dark as fuck.’ It takes till the final verbal coup to make good these assertions and overall it’s worth it.


Some of the games – Edkins’ card-games – go awry and it’s not entirely clear why we’re treated to a palimpsest of false starts, cut memories and false commands. The work-in-progress exo-skeletal approach is kinetic and funny, though can lack a follow-through and arrival. The devisers clearly construct a meta-narrative where only a few verbatim accounts stud the essential blank of loss that the opening and close try to impose. Nevetheles that’s where some of the most telling moments come.


One of the best moments is the quartet reading from scripted and genuine reviews onstage of the current show. Yes one or two are in the text, but there’s additions that spiritedly throw back the critical brickbats, condescensions and worrying-about-being-right comments.


At the end too we’re treated to a video as a kind of lights-up exit of the open process of selection and discussion. Fun, though perhaps too carelessly placed for a real impact. It’s one of those moments that throws into relief the efficacy of that process, a little hit-and-miss, a discussion of what a theatrical piece might look like. That might have its place in a larger narrative, or framing device; not a whole piece.


Each of the characters is given nicknames – Muvva, Pitbull, Queenie, the Artist – but see them assigned for yourself. Jade Small certainly conveys plangency and loss, Lucy Edkins a kind of sassy detachment, Jennifer Joseph too, who also narrates how she couldn’t tour with the rest of the Donmar Shakespeare Clean Break team to America because of their absurd laws, having invited a prisoners’ company; TeriAnn Oudjar the overarching confidence.


The aim of all these women finally, movingly, is as the Mozart fades back in ‘to feel safe’ as Small recounts her own arrest in front of her family at the airport. There’s a question and devastating answer. Essential viewing for anyone with the mildest interest into why women are jailed, and far longer than men. Not tidy, needs pruning, but visceral and sometimes very very funny. Then not.