Apparently, the new austerity means that Rochester Prison won’t allow Jim Pope and Philip Osment’s powerful drama back to play in the prison where it was developed. That’s sadly short-sighted. This funny and streetwise play gets under the skin of seven incarcerated dads who reluctantly join a prison drama group. If played on home turf, it would surely reach out to more. What’s striking about the whole production is its pent-up force. Midnight pipe-banging is a cliché of prison drama and life. But here, night is the time where banged-up hopes, fears and insults are yelled out in the dark. ‘It’s like I’m not fucking there,’ howls Aswan (Darren Douglas), unable to reach his pregnant girlfriend, who won’t reply to his letters. In the cold artificial light of day, illiterate hard-man Brownie (Segun Olaiya) tries to break up the drama group by whooping with scorn every time anyone’s improvisation gets personal. Flicking his keep-fit skipping rope around his tattooed limbs at whip-speed, he’s scarily pumped-up figure – and his odd comradeship with the group’s only white guy, Tommy, a skinny deep- thinkerwhom everyone else suspects is a nonce, is one of the most subtle and mysterious relationships in a play which can be a bit formulaic. The moral message is hard to miss. But the authentic acting compels. As the characters quicken with unexpected life and complexity, you realise that the power of the drama group is equal to the hopes of its comically well-intentioned coach, Liam (Jim Pope in a role he’s often played for real). ‘Inside’ channels the prisoners’ hopes to give their own kids a better future than the one their fathers condemned them to. Writer Osment sidles upto that realisation, with a lot of humour and resistance along the way. But when it comes it feels fully deserved and is all the more moving for having been earned the hard way.
Whats On Stage
Inside Track at the Roundhouse
There are several things to be said about a fine new prison play, Inside, at the Roundhouse studio; first of all that it marks a real return to form (or the spotlight, at least) for its author, Philip Osment.
Inside is about young banged-up fathers, researched in Rochester Prison, developed at the National Youth Theatre, and now presented by Playing On in association with the Roundhouse (or the Round House, as we used to call it).
Most interestingly, in Osment’s final script, the verbatim-sounding speeches and letters of the prisoners are incorporated in the outer scheme of a prison workshop itself, so that we see one of the play’s directors, Jim Pope (the other is Osment) playing a version of himself as a creative catalyst on a two-week project, culminating in a performance for friends and relatives.
This was my first visit inside the new Roundhouse studio (the old one used to be a dark, dank cellar), and it provides a perfect arena for the prisoners who face the walls when isolated in their cells and then step onto the underlit stage for the rehearsal sessions, or the pool table, or the gym, looking for a chance to get off the wing.
There’s the bolshie troublemaker, the abused young paedophile, the sullen murderer, the quick-witted drugs dealer — all seven men are characterised beyond their stereotypes, and the richness of the writing comes in not only their interplay but their interaction with the workshop leader and his assistant — whose gayness figures strongly in the truth-telling games.
But it’s the confessional speeches about what these prisoners thought of their own fathers, and what they might hope for their own children, by way of trying to learn lessons and reform, that gives the show its emotional power.
What might have been a routine exercise in do-gooding social therapy becomes a genuine drama of rich texture and revelation. Hats off to Osment and Pope, both proteges of that fine director and teacher, Mike Alfreds, who founded Shared Experience and was in the audience last night.
Michael Coveney Whats On Stage
The Arts Desk
Inside, Studio Theatre, Roundhouse
A violent, humorous, hugely powerful insight into the male mind-set
It’s just the luck of the draw. I’ve been sent to prison twice now in the past four days. Last Friday it was Clean Break’s day-long six-play epic in Soho. Last night it was an 80-minute all-male affair at the Roundhouse. Needless to say the encounters were planets apart. Men, after all, come from Mars, already primed for battle, women from Venus. Philip Osment’s Inside, however, once again provides living proof of the absurdity of such simplistic, reductive analysis. People are people. Each individual has their own story to tell and is shaped by conditions and environment and what they have or have not been subjected to in childhood. And, in this case in particular, the role fathering has or hasn’t played in the development of that individual.
Inside is an extraordinarily original journey into the male mind-set, its success lying not least in its style and presentation. Humour is its stock in trade and who ever heard of a prison drama that had audiences falling about? Ronnie Barker and Porridge apart, it wouldn’t even be worth lifting your digits to count ‘em. They don’t exist.
Well, they do now. And Osment and his associate, actor-director Jim Pope, who together make up the Playing On company presenting Inside, have just invented it. Imagine you’re sitting in on a drama workshop. Yes, it’s that well-worn, well-intentioned prison tool again. Through the interaction between Pope (who also acts the part of Liam, the workshop leader) and the group members, we begin to get to know the participants, warts and all.
On the face of it, they’re a typical bunch representative of the kind of young men who end up banged up: in large part black, not particularly articulate, aggressive. There is also one particular communality that binds this group together. They are all young fathers. As Liam attempts to confront them with the possibility of changing their behaviour through role playing and writing exercises – collectively received with various degrees of hostility and ridicule – we learn that Brownie (Segun Olaiya) is the hard-man top dog, rippling with muscles, brilliant with the skipping rope and twice as threatening. Skinny, thoughtful Tommy seems unduly under his spell. Then there is Jamal, Damian, Hasan, Aswan, Olu – all of them struggling to maintain relationships outside and defend themselves inside against peer intimidation.
Inside’s depiction of prison politics amongst inmates is horribly realistic. But what’s also on show here is how attitudes are made and the difficulties encountered in the process of trying to change behaviour that seems impenetrable and fixed in stone.
Indeed, how difficult was shown only a few weeks ago when the production, researched by Pope and Osment with an actual young-fathers group in Rochester prison and developed through the National Youth Theatre, was banned by the authorities from being presented there. How do you confront destructive behaviour unless you allow those involved to see where it leads them?
Perhaps, though, it was the humour to which they objected. The interactions are often abrasively funny, the smart-ass wisecracks recognisably derived from any street corner from Chiswick to Peckham. Yet even as we’re laughing, Inside reveals the core problem, the lack of fathering. Here are a group, themselves now responsible for young offspring. How do they want to be with their own children? Do they want to perpetuate the cycles of neglect, abandonment, physical cruelty and, in one case, sexual abuse that Liam finally manages to haltingly persuade the young men to reveal.
The production reaches its most poignant moments with these scribbled, reluctantly and, in some cases, agonisingly exposed accounts. The moment when Liam’s workshop helper, Dom (Andre Skeete), comes out to the group is gruesomely accurate in the prejudiced reaction it has upon some members. Another recalls watching the face of his father disappearing from sight as the plane that brings him to the UK lifts off and how he clung to that memory in the cold of a London morning.
Losing face, showing vulnerability – Inside explores these painful male characteristics with an admirable lack of pomposity or sermonising and a skilful sense of theatre as essentially entertaining. At once therapeutic and comic, Pope and Osment have also found a style of performance for Inside that allows the actors to appear utterly natural, as if their characters’ rough-and-tumble quips, evasions and conflicts were being improvised on the spot.
Drama can make a difference. But Inside bravely, self-mockingly ends on an ambivalent, violent note. The price of change and justice can be enormous. There are no soft, easy solutions. Fantastic performances; all deserve a mention. Michael Amaning, Jacob James Beswick, Ayo Bodunrin, Tarkan Cetinkaya, Darren Douglas, Kyle Thorne, plus lighting designer Ian Scott who makes the Roundhouse studio starkly inhospitable, its characters iconic in their spotlit or shadowed solitude.
Carole Woddis The Arts Desk
“Truly refreshing, moving and entertaining”
by Lauren Witts for remotegoat on 16/11/10
The idea for this show first arose out of a series of drama workshops that the playwright, Philip Osment, was involved in at Rochester Young Offenders Prison.
Osment took inspiration from the stories of the young men he was meeting inside the prison and presented certain scenarios to a group of disenfranchised young people (most not in education, training or employment) that he was working with on a drama course outside of the prison.
From there came the idea for a play about the experience of being ‘inside’ and specifically of what fatherhood meant to these locked up young men. Osment decided to write a full-length play about these issues and thus created ‘Inside’.
The full cast consists of nine actors, who between them play seven prisoners, their drama group leader and assistant. The story follows the group prisoners as they embark on a series of drama workshops designed to help them improve their fathering skills. At first it seems that many of the group are there to beat boredom and to find an excuse to get off the wing. But, as the play advances, the individual stories of the prisoners develop and in turn, all of them a forced to face up to a few truths of their own.
The staging of this show was simple and the set and props were fairly minimal yet it all worked effectively. Each of the men used a chair during the drama sessions that doubled as a prop when they retired to their ‘individual’ cells. When the wire frame of a pool table was erected, it made a believable social area. The men all wore standard issue prison grey sweatshirts and jogging bottoms and throughout the performance all members of the cast remained on stage (except for one plot building moment, where one of them is missing). This added to the sense of confinement within the young prisoners restricted lives.
In its eighty minutes running time ‘Inside’ confronts a whole bundle of serious issues from the mens’ disappointment with their own father figures, to their aspirations for their own children’s futures, yet manages to remain funny, upbeat and well paced throughout. This is a well written piece that has clearly come under some skilled direction, with the acting being so believable that it was almost a surprise to see the cast in the bar afterwards out of character!
This is an excellent piece of theatre that is truly refreshing, moving and entertaining. ‘Inside’ not only proves how powerful theatre can be for its audience, but also demonstrates how theatre can act as a tool for personal change and positive transformation at all stages of the process.
‘Inside’ runs at The Roundhouse in Camden until the 27th November.
A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Inside is the story of a prison drama workshop group aimed to help young fathers become better parents. Leaders Liam and Dom have a few tense weeks to help the young men create a piece of theatre which will be performed in the prison for the inmates’ families. Met by distracted and aggressive scepticism, the leaders use theatre to unlock the guarded minds of the young fathers and break down prejudices in order to build a unit of mutual respect. With water-tight writing, slick direction and compelling authenticity, Inside highlights both the inefficiency of Britain’s penal system and the delicate humanity of young men who have never been given the chance to leave adolescence.
From the moment you step into the space, the prison is alive with the gruff buzz of caged testosterone. The inmates encircle the empty stage, slouching aggressively on their plastic chairs like the cast of Dangerous Minds. The prison is a battle ground of gangs and protection, and the play tracks the courage it takes for these men to reveal themselves as they are asked to do in the workshops. The piece shows how drama can pierce the insecurities of big egos and bolster the confidence of unsupported talent. But as some characters develop, others regress, and we’re reminded of the circular battle of free will versus brutal and deterministic pasts. The hope is that by engaging with themselves through the nourishment of theatre, the young men learn that they can take control of their own actions, and become the fathers they never had. The fear is that they will become so disillusioned by the inadequacy of rehabilitation that they will take the law into their own hands, whether it be by breaking it, or enforcing it unlawfully.
The stage is flooded with natural and vibrant acting and there’s no weak link. Each character represents a personality who reacts differently to the drama sessions, the only unnatural thing being that no two characters attempt to occupy the same social space. But this is theatre, and its condensed lens is sharp, accurate and clear. Kyle Thorne earns a special mention for his loyal airhead characterisation of Damian and Segun Olaiya’s exhilarating skip-rope scene as Brownie has an intensity which ensures the audience’s attention for the rest of the show. Another star is Jacob James Beswick’s disturbed and disenchanted intellectual, Tommy, a character with the eerie violence of Steve Buschemi’s Garland Greene in Con-Air. Pope and Osment’s masterstroke direction which sees Tommy leave the stage (the only character ever to do so) in the closing scenes reveals the inherent exclusion of group work, and his electrifying return for the steely finale thrusts an icy message into the hearts of the leaving audience.
The key artistic feature of the piece is this magnetic direction. By using the edge of the stage as an invisible barrier, Pope and Osment lock the audience into the primary action, leaving the rest of the cast to linger menacingly in their surrounding cells. The beating on the cell walls intensifies the claustrophobia of the space and highlights the relentless impotency of imprisonment. Michael Breakey’s suggestive set captures the sparseness of a jail’s interior ingeniously; the skeleton pool table acts as a ghostly reminder of the negative effect of vapid décor and uninspiring surroundings, while Ian Scott’s stark white lights elucidate the barrenness of the environment, splashing focus onto never-private moments of intimacy.
Inside is a powerful example of theatre playing to its strengths. Its prison walls embrace dramatic tension and the subject matter is sincere but well garnished with comic breaks. In a time when the value (and expense) of theatre is being questioned by the funding government, Inside is proof that theatre holds a unique position as both a practical tool to help those who make it and as a window into pressing social issues for those who watch it.
Inside, Roundhouse, Camden
Researched in Rochester Prison with a young fathers group, devised at the National Youth Theatre and presented at the Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institute and Soho Theatre, Inside is a fascinating insight into the plight of young men in prison who are not able to see their children grow up.
These men attend a drama workshop that enables them to express their opinions and guilt. The workshop also gives the prisoners the chance to break the boring monotony of prison life and to learn not only about themselves but each other as well.
Not everything is smooth sailing as they have to deal with their own abandonment issues, jealousies, rivalry and being in prison. Who is really your friend and who can you really trust?
All the characters have their own back story and character development that emerges and progress throughout the play and told exceptionally well. The stand out character to me was Brownie, a guy who derives pleasure from making others feel bad, a true sadist. He does not care who he makes fun of, whether it be the other prisoners or the teacher and his assistant. He likes nothing more than getting under your skin and making you feel as bad as he does.
The script is engaging and funny. Having been researched – the characters are real and multi dimensional, they go beyond stereotypes of what you deem prisoners to be, especially in the case of the young black prisoners.
The audience were able to feel empathy and connect with the characters; you feel it especially when the characters open up via monologues to express their own feelings about their own fathers. These men want a better life for their children and they want to do better for them. Something they themselves never had from their own fathers. Who could disagree with that?