Lockdown review: The Other Tchaikovsky (BBC Radio 4)

When Chris Tchaikovsky died, far too young, of cancer, a major force in women’s activism was lost. A popular and vibrant force in prison reform, she had started from petty crime in London’s East End but after a period in prison, used her energy and dynamism as a force for good.

Harriet Madeley’s latest play, in collaboration with the Prison Radio Association, was entirely planned and performed in lockdown, and utilises verbatim interviews plus passages from Tchaikovsky’s book to bring her world to life.

Starring Sheila Atim and Jenna Russell in variety of roles, plus Madeley herself and Victoria Ebun as narrator, The Other Tchaikovsky starts with Chris running away with her teenage girlfriend, already pushing against estsblished norms.

Petty theft for survival moves into gangland money scams, and it is when Chris finds herself incarcerated that her world changes. The shocking death in a cell fire of one inmate highlights both staff inertia and the wilful misunderstanding of the psychological state of many female inmates.

The Sleaze Sisters: Chris's DJs at Women's City Disco
The Sleaze Sisters: Chris’s DJs at Women’s City Disco

Directed by Jessica Edwards, this radio production blends a number of voices and testimony, plus music of the period, to bring aspects to life. The playground of the Krays. 1970s prison life. Women’s City at King’s Cross, which set to be a safe space for all women (although, as pointedly noted, the “leminist fesbians” were not in favour).

Part play, part documentary, part hagiography, The Other Tchaikovsky presents Chris as a force for good despite a problematic past. She states “we did our villainy honestly” to justify her criminal activity, and her aggressive promiscuity is skimmed over in favour of her attractiveness and allure.

Undoubtedly, her work developing the Women in Prison initiative was of benefit to many. We hear of Christmas parties in Holloway, of probation visits, but also cautionary tales like that of Josie, returned to jail as a lifer and transferred from her place of safety. Her death feels borh inevitable and entirely preventable (“she always won, she set herself free”).

Cast and director of The Other Tchaikovsky on Zoom
Cast and director of The Other Tchaikovsky on Zoom

The Other Tchaikovsky is thoughtful, at times deeply moving, and a celebration of both the queer spirit and the rise of the women’s movement. The Women’s City project evolved from the club scene where lesbian spaces such as Gateways in Chelsea flourished (for half a decade).

Included, too, is a critique of the justice system which lets wife killers go free with suspended sentences but does not extend the same thought process to husband killers, whatever the provocation. Coercive control is a topic which could stand a play of its own, but the point is forcefully made.

This is an important piece of work which needs to be widely discussed. Harriet Madeley will be talking further about the play on this week’s Women’s Hour.

The Other Tchaikovsky is available here.

Image credits: Harriet Madeley and the Prison Radio Association