Review: Screwdriver, Lyric Hammersmith

As posited by Oscar Wilde, “one of the many lessons that one learns in prison is that things are what they are and will be what they will be.” However, in Eve Cowley and Elin Schofield’s new one-woman play Screwdriver, this idea of perspective is challenged to the extreme as the pair present a prison drama that is equal parts insightful and ingenious.

Performed entirely by Cowley alone on stage, Screwdriver is about Nicole, a prison guard ready to share all the salacious secrets of her job. From the shenanigans of the colourful cast of inmates, to the hijinks of her ill-equipped colleagues, Nicole is ready to spill the unspoken truths of the trade, no matter how shocking. However, as Nicole’s revelations get darker and darker, a troubling thought emerges: on what side of the bars does she really belong?

What is apparent above all else is that Cowley and Schofield have done their homework: each of Nicole’s tales are rooted in research, informed by interviews the two playwrights conducted with inmates, officers, mediators, and probation workers. As a result, Screwdriver avoids soap-opera soppiness and instead offers a portrayal of prison life that seems grounded in reality: less mania, more minutiae. Nevertheless, the pair succeed in finding a compelling drama in this truthfulness, as we see how moral responsibility weighs on Nicole. It is in this everyday-exploration that the play thrives, offering a scenario and then subverting it through juxtaposing it with an alternate perspective: acts of kindness become malicious, funny stories become dire warnings, and a prison guard loser power to her prisoners.

Indeed, its difficult to fully commend Screwdriver without revealing its defining twists and tricks: needless to say, the way the pair manage to frame and reframe Nicole’s tales is incredible, and worth the price of admission alone. Moreover, George Ogilvie’s lighting design and Cindy Lin’s set design are fantastic, reinforcing the shifts in the narrative with nuance; truly, stand-outs of the production.

However, Screwdriver does fall short in a few places: Cowley, although doing an overall fine job as Nicole, took some time to warm to the stage, beginning with a characterisation that felt stereotypical and lazy. This initial difficulty, paired with jokes that miss more often than hit, make the production feel like a work-in-process rather than finished product.

Nevertheless, the play is exactly what you’d want from a showcase like Evolution 2020: although probably needing another edit, at its core Screwdriver is pertinent, powerful and utterly promising.

Screwdriver played the Lyric Hammersmith until 14 February. For more information, visit the Lyric Hammersmith website.