With the Royal Court I often find that it’s the smaller shows upstairs in the Jerwood that are actually the most powerful explosions across the London theatre scene. Clean Break’s Inside Bitch is no different.
Set up in 1979, Clean Break has consistently smashed the mould of what theatre is capable of. At the heart of their work, Clean Break is a theatre company that offers specialist training and support to women who have experience of the criminal justice system. However, their rich history, magnificent portfolio of work and drive to combat the stark reality that ‘women are judged by different standards to men’ mark them as a social movement all of their own.
Celebrating their 40th birthday at the Royal Court seems more than appropriate given the theatre’s companionship over Clean Break’s broad history- their first play A Question of Habit had a rehearsed reading there in 1979, offering the locals of Sloane Square an exciting taste of what was to come.
The cast, who have a lived experience of being in prison and are all co-contributors to the piece, set about to try and create their own prison drama- one that reflects a real life British prison, not like the guff you see on Orange is the New Black.
The narratives are based on explorations from workshops Clean Break conducted approximately 18 months prior. These exercises are reflected in the physical script, which has a fun, journal like quality to it, well worth a read!
Running at an hour, Inside Bitch is a limitless force of humour, fantasy and stone cold truth. It’s more a series of vignettes rather than a solidified theatre piece, with the actors swapping from their own names, prison names and adopting different guises throughout- it’s the breaking away of convention that really makes Inside Bitch work. In one vignette, the cast read aloud press reviews, scrutinising them with a sharp, perfect irony- after all this is press night.
Jennifer Joseph (previous credits include the brilliant Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar) is mesmerising, delivering her gut wrenching monologue with such an ease it’s no surprise she’s such a well established actor in her own right. Her voice has a tenderness that hooks you in, but she never reveals too much, which is a point shared by all four women. Prison stories are so reliant on salacious ‘what did she do?’ narratives that pulling away from that feels refreshing, appropriate and most of all restorative.
We watch the girls recreate the infamous ‘you’re not my mother!’ scene from Eastenders against a crude backdrop of what looks like a Whetherspoons. In the next moment they’re driving off a cliff a la Thelma and Louise. At times it is bonkers, but the comedy, and each actor’s gravitas pull the piece together. It’s rough around the edges, imperfect but perfectly so.
‘It’s so horrific at times, I have to turn it into a comedy’ says TerriAnn, the rawness in her delivery lets us know she is definitely telling the truth- and the truth is what’s constantly being toyed with by the four women. TerriAnn mentions her friend that got nicked for stealing a trifle, is she trying to pull the wool over our eyes knowing the majority of us in the audience are hapless fools? Or is the prison system actually quite so mad? The latter is probably true.
But it’s the closing scene that really brings it all back to reality. A voice recording from the original Clean Break workshops is heard asking the cast what their funniest memories of prison were, and it’s met by an inky black silence. There is nothing funny here, these are real lives. It isn’t a movie, it’s not all a silly costume, prison life is a hard, cruel bitch.
Review written by Niall Hunt.
Inside Bitch is currently showing until Saturday 23rd March 2019 at the Royal Court. To find out more about the show, visit here…