Beauty is Prison Time is a one-woman show written by and starring Zoe Mavroudi, directed by Terra Vandergaw. Mavroudi takes us on an emotional journey with her as she talks of her life ‘out’ before, and prepares for a beauty pageant that perhaps could she her ‘out’ again, if she wins. An interesting concept for a play, this scenario where a woman can win her freedom in a beauty pageant is based on real life situations.

The set is spare, with black walls and floor, and a desk with a sewing machine on one side of the stage and a clothing rail with a few suits hanging on it. The play begins with Mavroudi’s character, Lyudmilla, telling us about her day-to-day existence sewing uniforms for the Russian army and irritating the other prisoners with her relentless singing. This serves as a device to introduce the beauty pageant storyline and give us an insight into Lyudmilla’s often naïve hopefulness.

Lyudmilla is a character that you instantly warm towards, with her 1,000 watt smile and eager attitude. Mavroudi plays her with a lot of heart, commanding the audience’s love and attention as she begins to reveal the story of how she ended up in the prison and what she plans to do if she gets out. The direction at times is a little heavy-handed, with a few moments where Lyudmilla falters in her monologue, not daring to go on, seemingly having trapped herself into saying something she’s not ready for about her past life. However although Mavroudi plays Lyudmilla as naïve, positive and keen to make friends this faltering when difficult memories are stirred up isn’t entirely convincing. This doesn’t mar the credibility of Lyudmilla’s character overall though.

Beauty is Prison Time is a play that in emotional terms gives with one hand as it takes away with the other, toying with the audience as they warm to Lyudmilla and her dreams about winning the beauty pageant and being reunited with her daughter. In one moment she’s practising her English and laughing at the odd combination of words that make up ‘friendship’, rehearsing her ‘beauty walk’ and answers to the questions for the personality section of the contest, and the next moment the sound of gunshots ring out and we’re back with her in the underworld of the mafia and the heartbreaking reason why Lyudmilla’s costume is going to be inspired by the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, and then back to Lyudmilla’s amazing and hilarious dance to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ with smile still firmly in place as she high-kicks in heels around the stage.

Beauty is Prison Time imaginatively uses set, sound effects and dramatic spotlighting to reveal the power of one character’s hope and warm personality as they tell a tragic story that is all the more so as it is not unique to Lyudmilla, but rather a fate faced by many women who fall into the wrong hands. Hugely enjoyable and moving with a lot of humour and heart.

Beauty is Prison Time is playing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 31st August. For more information and tickets, see the website here.