Coming hot on the heels of the news that books are being banned from prisons, a play about habilitating female prisoners through music, and the empowerment that this creative outlet brings them, could not be more relevant or important. Indeed, Hopelessly Devoted, currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre, takes a sensitive and heart-felt look at the story of inmate Chess and her attempt to reach out to her daughter through song from behind bars.
And there is no better talent than performance poet, rapper and playwright, Kate Tempest to render Chess and her partner Serena’s troubles and hopes into song. With lyrics which are powerful and potent, in true Tempest style, the music in Hopelessly Devoted is no doubt its highlight. Through the course of the play, we see Chess journey from sullen, uncommunicative and closed off, to finding her feet as a singer thanks to the help of mentor, Silver. Cat Simmon’s performance as Chess is stunning: with her electric singing voice and quietly confident stage presence, the audience are on board with Chess’s story from start to finish. Tempest triumphs with moments which offer a fresh perspective on life inside, such as Chess and Serena’s claims that while they may be locked up, at least they don’t have to pretend to be free like the people outside.
The execution of the piece is theatrical and imaginative, thanks to directors, Stef O’Driscoll and James Grieve, alongside movement director Tuan Ly. Together, they avoid any kind of laborious prop or scene change-heavy naturalism, instead exploring more interesting and abstract ways to tell the story, such as a cleverly co-ordinated, physicalised game of chess between the inmates. This is only bolstered by Joanna Scotcher’s simple design and the nuance that Jack Knowles’s lighting design brings to the piece, meaning it is as strong visually as it is aurally.
Generally, the story does feel somewhat predictable as, despite the obstacles Chess faces, there is a sense of inevitability that she will eventually come into her own and find the strength to perform. As such, this pre-ordained story arc does at times lead to scenes veering more towards discussion than drama, such as Chess and Serena often wondering whether they can ever survive outside, and their discussion of the gravity of the crimes which brought them to prison in the first place. As a result, more of our sense of who these women are comes from what they tell us about themselves, rather than what they do. While Hopelessly Devoted has plenty of heart and passion, which truly emanates from the cast and Tempest’s own writing, this tendency did sometimes cause the balance to tip towards style and even sentimentality over substance, where it might have been fascinating to really examine these women’s behaviours and dig deeper into what was not being said. Nonetheless, while this slowed the piece at first, it does gain a huge amount of momentum as it plays out thanks to Tempest’s lyrical words and many witty exchanges which verve and colour to these women’s bleak world.
And despite any small problems, Hopelessly Devoted certainly stands out as one of the freshest and most interesting pieces of theatre so far this year, thanks to the strong creative vision and team behind it and the powerhouse performances of Simmons, Michelle Gayle and Gbemisola Ikumelo. Tempest is no doubt a playwright to watch, a playwright whose command of language and ability to channel such feeling into her work stands her apart from her peers, with Hopefully Devoted certainly an indicator of even bigger and better things to come.
Hopelessly Devoted is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website.