“When you go to prison, they don’t teach you how to live”.
These are the words of performer TerriAnn Oudjar, uttered during an interview conducted during the show’s research process. In her interview – which we hear the recording of – Oudjar then goes on to describe how she became obsessed with going to the gym during her time inside, inadvertently bulking up due to a high-carb diet of potatoes and rice, and consequently earning herself the nickname ‘The Pitbull’. This revelation is truly, raucously, laugh-out-loud funny – as are many other moments of the show; and for all the right reasons.
This isn’t necessarily a response I expect from a piece exploring and challenging public perceptions of women in prison, but one that is extremely welcome. Clean Break is a theatre company that has been working with women with experience of the prison system since 1979. Co-created and co-directed by playwright Stacey Gregg and live artist Deborah Pearson, and assistant directed by the Royal Court’s current trainee director Milli Bhatia, Inside Bitch delves into the often ridiculous, unrealistic or over-sexualised images of women prisoners constructed within film and television. It does this through a framing device of the four female performers – all Clean Break members with their own experiences of the prison system – working to put together their own television series that debunk these narratives.
At the beginning, performer Lucy Edkins hilariously recounts word-for-word the response of a prison officer who was shown Orange is the New Black for the first time during the show’s research process – “rubbish… atrocious… no prison would be run that badly”. Soon after, performer Jennifer Joseph occupies a sound booth present on stage to reel off, through a microphone, a long list of associations made with women in prison, which the others either confirm or deny. These include depression and mental health problems (a resounding yes), suicide (a similar response), women raping women (yep, seen that), a bread and water diet (for god’s sake, it’s 2019), rats and cockroaches (huge ones). These opening moments set the tone for the piece extremely well and create an instant rapport between performers and audience.
A stand-out moment occurs when Joseph returns to the sound booth, this time to share the story of being arrested in an airport with her husband and four children present, and the pain and conflict of them visiting her inside. This testimony is the realest and most heartfelt thing I’ve witnessed on a stage in a very long time. The other performers gently break this moment with some light comic relief, deciding amongst themselves that this would make a great emotional climax for their series. Gregg weaves light and dark together seamlessly in her dramaturgy.
When it comes to pitching their show to executives, they point out that their USP is the fact they’ve all been to prison – “we’ve got the real shit”. Video by Edie Morris is then used to brilliant effect – clips of performers auditioning for roles in their own series, on the red carpet at the premiere, a Thelma and Louise spoof, and more.
The issues at stake here are addressed smartly and sensitively by this all-female creative team. The performers are affable, charming, and hilarious, and bare themselves in a way that engages us from beginning to end. The writing and direction are delicately executed and highlight the essence of the real people on stage.
At the end, a final recording plays. We hear an interviewer ask about the funny times in prison – is there a time the women remember when they laughed really hard? There is a silence, and the women stare uncomfortably into the audience. After a long time, a voice on the recording says sorry, she can’t think of anything. All at once we are reminded that, for all the laughs of Inside Bitch, this topic really is no laughing matter.
Clean Break are doing exceptional work: this is how applied theatre should be done.
Inside Bitch is playing until 23 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Court Theatre website.