Rules of the Game

Sinead, a prostitute, Debbie, an alcoholic thief, and Mags, a schizophrenic who has murdered her husband, all inhabit the same prison. Two guards watch over them, literally taking the form of good cop and bad cop. Deano, the bad cop, is a sex-obsessed misogynist with anger issues. Over the span of their time in prison, the inmates realise that they need to stick together. In partnership with Women’s Aid and based on the real life accounts of women in contemporary prisons, this project is no doubt well-intentioned and true to real life. However, in terms of creating a subtle piece of theatre with a plot, it falls short.

There is no real central conflict. Conditions are bad for these women. They quarrel, talk about wanting to get out, are bullied by Deano, forced to change in front of one another in tiny spaces, and take pills they don’t want to take. Even macaroni and cheese is taken off the menu one evening, to be substituted for rice and chicken. We get to know the characters a little more, but nothing really happens. The feel is more that of a ‘day in the life of’ piece, rather than a structured play. Information was communicated in very obvious ways. The dialogue often came across as realistic but certainly not very interesting. The ‘banter’ between bonding inmates just seemed like grown women bickering and prevented their friendship from seeming believable.

Sarah Harkins as the naïve, outwardly tough Sinead and Holly Clark as the similarly deluded, strong Debbie were played with the most subtlety. For all their characters’ bravado, cracks soon began to show. Sinead, after years of prostitution, says ‘Yeah I may not have got the top marks but at least I was the prettiest in my class’, and Debbie’s consistent devotion to her alcoholic fiancée who has yet to visit her becomes more and more tragic. Their gradual friendship seemed most conceivable.

The characters that caused problems however were Deano and Mags. The concept that some policemen are immoral and abuse their power isn’t far from your average audience member’s imagination. The portrayal of Deano’s misogyny thus felt somewhat predictable. His watching pornography on his phone felt uncomfortable but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Worse was when the misogyny was ‘explained’. Typically, he had had mother issues as a child. This came out in a very loud shouting scene between the two guards that contained more swearing than genuinely interesting manipulation of language.

Mags was problematic for different reasons. It is difficult to portray mental illness on stage. Finding a balance between truth and theatrical interest is tricky. The directorial choice here was to have Mag mumble obscenities and absurdities throughout, up until the final moment of clarity, in which she made perfect sense and no longer seemed schizophrenic. Ultimately the character seemed unbelievable and unrelatable, along with the coherent moment itself.

This final scene, the moment of true bonding, combined something of the three women’s backstories, equipped with long pregnant pauses and ending with some embarrassingly sentimental music. Unfortunately, if the play had been trying to suggest that friendship is the only way to survive dark times, as Sinead suggests, it failed to make these friendships seem powerful or indeed entertaining enough to do so.


The Blurb

Devised from true stories, we follow three female prisoners in their locked-up world. With mental health problems rife, and routines repetitive, inmates are forced to unite through common bonds, laughter and hopes for a better tomorrow.