Clean Break’s new production is a new play by Alice Birch, focusing on women offenders, women’s prisons, and middle-class mendacity. It takes the testimonies of the forgotten and often misunderstood to develop an engrossing piece of theatre.

Maria Aberg directs an exceptional cast of sixteen women and girls, who inhabit characters who share their names. Several short scenes prove effective, disturbing, even distressing, especially as we watch the evolving storylines of Kate, Zainab, and Joanna.

Joanna in [BLANK]
Joanna in [BLANK]

Birch’s note in the programme mentions 100 scenes she has crafted, which can be brought together to created a different production each time. This Donmar production uses thirty of those scenes to develop a play, bringing voices to women lost in the system to drug addiction, mental illness, or pure devastation.

[BLANK] is full of honest questions and powerful set pieces, using a selection of spaces in Rosie Elnile’s set of boxes, cells, kitchens, ledges and doors. Video and lighting design (by Heta Multanen and Jess Bernberg resoectively), and sound design by Carolyn Downing bring stories and scenes into cohesion.

I felt the inclusion of child actors in some scenes very effective, as well as the dynamics of family relationships between adults: thieving addict and mother, desperate mother and calm grandma, daughter and mother prison survivors with nothing to say but “OK”.

Shona and Jackie in [BLANK]
Shona and Jackie in [BLANK]

We see the prison system in action, too: the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the use of “appropriate distance”, the failure of mental support. In one scene an inmate starts to make which sounds like a reasonable request but ends with her observation that every object is there to “harm her”.

There are scenes which rip out your heart, too. The mother who “can’t remember picking up the knife” but who will always remember her children as they looked, dead, after neighbours “reported cries of Mummy”. Jemima, a liaison officer ill-equipped for the bad news she has to deliver to a mother resigned to it. A daughter whose concern about her mother’s violent new boyfriend is shut down for “being a bitch”.

[BLANK] is a powerful piece which builds our perceptions and preconceptions before settling on a lengthy dinner party scene with a group of women who entertain drug dealers and justify the most repellent of crimes lightly, or as victimisation. Uncomfortable, yes, but necessary, and the closure of this scene is violent, and cathartic

Jemima and cast of [BLANK]
Jemima and cast of [BLANK]

The total effect of nearly two hours without a break of this sensory overload is to set audiences opposite a mirror of their own prejudices, asking whether incarceration is really the best way to deal with female criminals. Is taking their children away for the best (we see a young pregnant mother in one scene, a displaced teenager in another about to leave her foster home)?

[BLANK] continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 30 November. Although some scenes inevitably work better than others, I recommend you take a look.

Photo credits Helen Maybanks.

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