“cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate”
A woman breaks into her parents’ home to steal money for drugs; a prisoner sees every object as a possible way of killing herself; a sex worker waits in the cold for an extra ten pounds…
For forty years, Clean Break has been changing the future of women during and after their time in prison by both providing an outlet to challenge their misrepresentation in popular entertainment and as a formative process for learning, expression and evolution. Alice Birch’s commission to celebrate this gives carte blanche from a selection of 100 scenes – any number, any order – which address the manifold causes, processes and effects of being caught up in the criminal justice system. By the very nature of the crimes women commit, locking them away is less a safety measure for the rest of society than distancing them from their own threats with devastating repercussions for them, those they depend on and who depend on them. Director, Maria Aberg, has carefully chosen and arranged her selection to touch on lives blighted by a structure which does not confront these complex pastoral issues.
With a brilliant choice of cast, the scope for illustrating the breadth of age, race and class of these women works well visually as well as within the script. Rosie Elnile’s versatile set of raised, individual box rooms around a central space forms different levels of impact for the audience, from the feeling of observed, intimate conversations of abusive relationships and foster care to being drawn into the group spirit of prison life. Some scenes work better than others, however, which produces a somewhat uneven flow. After fragments of emotional experiences at home and in prison, of mothers, daughters, prisoners and staff, the action’s centrepiece (and scene number 100) is a dinner party of old friends. Here Birch brings together all the elements of the good-doing, professional society, patting each other on the back and having another glass of wine. The overlapping conversation between the guests is superb, hypocrisy slowly smouldering as their personalities unfold (the detective, the documentary maker, the therapist, the charity volunteers…) until the one outsider, played by Shona Babayemi, in a passionate outburst, can stand the insincerity no longer.
There are strong performances all round, though our natural expectations for an imposed narrative makes it difficult to completely engage with the characters. Thusitha Jayasundera shows us the painful impotence of a mother who is told her daughter has committed suicide in prison and we feel the confused heartbreak of Joanna Horton as the mother who sees no option for her children but to kill them. In a truly sobering moment, Lucy Edkins and Kate O’Flynn’s quietly powerful final scene as mother and daughter sums up the tragic personal loss of the ignored. Despite the dark and distressing subject, the writing, acting and direction balances sadness with humour. ‘Blank’ cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate.
“a richly atmospheric show about memory, community, and what it means to let go.”
The stage area of The Bunker Theatre has been transformed into a neighbourhood pub. With a fully-functioning bar, ‘The Anchor’ is open an hour prior to each performance for drinks and pool. There’s no need to go out to the foyer for a pint during the interval. A pub quiz every Tuesday night after the show, and karaoke every Thursday night, completes the transformation.
Written by Anna Jordan and directed by Chris Sonnex, We Anchor in Hope is a simmering, uneasy piece that reminds us how precarious our footholds are in society’s ever-shifting landscape. Designed by Zoe Hurwitz, The Anchor is a working-class, locals’ pub. It’s an old bastion in its Pimlico neighbourhood, but the play begins on its last day in business. The year is 2016. The referendum has just passed. The owner calls The Anchor a “safe place”, a haven from the madness. But while we may be safe inside, Jordan and Sonnex ensure we’re constantly aware of the tides of change lapping at the doors. The Anchor won’t withstand the relentless waves of gentrification.
The two young bartenders are Pearl (Alex Jarrett) and Bilbo (Daniel Kendrick). Pearl has grown up in bars. She remembers being six years old, colouring in colouring books while her mum flirted at the pool table. Bilbo got his nickname from his love of The Hobbit. Raised in foster homes, the community at The Anchor is the closest thing he’s had to family. Regulars Frank (David Killick) and Shaun (Alan Turkington) are in almost every day. Frank, in his seventies, is a fixture at the pub. He’s seen it change hands from father to son. Shaun works construction during the week, and goes home at the weekends to see his wife and kids. Kenny (Valentine Hanson) owns the pub. It’s been a rough few months for him. His wife left around the same time he was forced to sell The Anchor.
The crew decide to have one last hurrah on The Anchor’s final night. The last of the alcohol needs to be drunk. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.” As the night unfolds, tensions rise, secrets are revealed, and decisions are reached. The five personalities of the play are dynamic and complicated, compellingly brought to life by a talented cast. Killick stands out for his precise portrayal of The Anchor’s own anchor, Frank; Kendrick for his earnest performance of the down-and-out Bilbo.
We Anchor in Hope is largely a character study. It works for the most part, thanks to the vividness of the characters and the strength of the cast. However, the lack of narrative thread can make the show feel long at times. The beginning is slow, and the play takes some time to find its stride. More shape to the story would cut down the instances when the show seems to stall or drift.
Nevertheless, Jordan has skilfully captured the brief sigh of mourning – for the comfort of the status quo, and the nostalgia for the way things were – before the necessity of moving on. This is a working-class story. All communities must adapt with the changing times, but it’s the working classes that are hit the hardest. It’s harder punches they have to roll with, and while it seems clear the crew at The Anchor will survive – they are survivors – they’ll carry the bruises with them.
Jordan, Sonnex, and Hurwitz have created a richly atmospheric show about memory, community, and what it means to let go. Pull up a barstool and join in the bitter celebration for the end of an era.