[ BLANK ]
Reviewed – 23rd October 2019
“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.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Helen Maybanks
Donmar Warehouse until 30th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: