Kate Tempest does music now. Not content with shaking our very bones with her epic, intimate spoken word, she’s now released an album, Everybody Down, and gave a stonking set in Latitude’s Film and Music tent last weekend. She also does plays – and to be honest, I wasn’t massively keen on her last effort, Wasted. A three-hander about a group of friends dealing with the loss of another, it felt a little like a theatre-in-education piece about the dangers of drugs. That’s not to patronise the work, but to suggest I felt a little patronised by the play myself. The disjunct between the inter-character dialogue and the out-front spoken word also felt glitchy, as if she hadn’t adapted to a new form yet. But Tempest’s new play, touring with Paines Plough, is an enormous step up – another three-hander called Hopelessly Devoted.
Now this sounds like an amateur performance of Grease that couldn’t afford the production rights. But the title is the worst thing about it. Running at just over an hour, it’s a grittily funny and fiercely moving piece about an incarcerated woman confronting her past – and finding unexpected fame – through music. This gives Tempest an opportunity to show off her recent foray into hip-hop in a way that’s structurally cohesive, and her unmistakeable talent for combining complex narrative with beats and rhymes gets into full flow.
Chess, played by the devastatingly believable and vocally talented Cat Simmons, is in prison for killing her abusive husband. Her close friendship with fellow inmate Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo) comes under pressure when she starts taking part in music workshops with recovering addict, former star-producer and community worker Silver (Michelle Gale). After Serena is granted parole and begins manipulating the situation from the outside, the trio’s relationship grows messier still.
The musical set-pieces, with original lyrics written by Tempest, are brilliant – and it’s not difficult to believe that Simmons’s character would gain recognition for her talents in the play. It’s also staged with considered simplicity, the actors multi-role-ing as prison guards and a recording of constant, low-level noise to evoke the oppressive atmosphere of the institution. Combining each of Tempest’s current directions and put together with a stellar cast, Hopelessly Devoted shines a harsh but humane light on the lives of women in the prison system today and the importance of initiatives that work with and empower them.
Hopelessly Devoted was at Latitude Festival.