Prison ain’t fun. We know this because it’s been hammered into us via a barrage of jail dramas, documentaries, movies and theatre productions. Those of us that have actually been to the pen – just visiting, Monopoly-style, of course – can confirm as much: prison ain’t fun.
A Woman Inside is the first play written and directed by former prison worker Sophie Besse. Electing to stick with what she knows, Besse has created an astonishingly convincing portrait of life in a women’s jail, with every last detail faithfully recreated, from the rattle of jailers’ keys to the slam of the heavy steel doors. The director has cast actresses trained at a theatre company that works with women who’ve been affected by the criminal justice system. Short of proposing a riot on Facebook, this is the closest you’re likely to get to seeing the wrong side of a prison door.
A Woman Inside may be the real deal, but is it any good? Yes – provided you can handle the harsh realities of prison life. In the real world, prison is 95% regimented boredom, 5% action. It’s not Sophie Besse’s fault that her play rigidly follows the rules of prison life. Indeed, it is to her credit that she’s created a production that so unflinchingly mirrors the monotony of incarceration.
Cellmates Barbara and Sharon form an incongruous friendship, drawn together by their propinquity more than anything else. Barbara ‘call me Babs’ is a curvy beautician and first offender who is pining for her young daughter. She forms a perfect foil to slender, smouldering Sharon, who is facing up to some serious charges of attempted murder.
The chemistry between the pair is evident, as they laugh, cry and scream their way through their internment. The acting is impeccable, though the script suffers from the sort of listlessness that typifies prison life. By the mid-point of the show, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in the midst of a stretch of your own. Persevere – for what other choice do you have when you’re stuck in the slammer? – and you’ll be rewarded with some life-affirming moments that vitiate the monotony they’re enshrouded in. A Woman Inside ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but that’s prison for you: there are no fireworks when your name’s called and you walk out that door for the last time. Just a warm feeling in the pit of your stomach and a vow never to return again.