The Quick opens with a heart-stopping cacophony of shrieks, shouts and loud banging. As the lights reveal the stage we are looking into a prison cell with a tiny, wiry woman with cropped hair and running shoes ‘going off’ and being disciplined. The audience is thrust straight away into the world of the prison, with a realistic set painted in the attempting-to-be cheery shades of off-magnolia and sky blue, with bunk beds and filing cabinets for furniture. The filing cabinet comes in for a lot of abuse throughout the play.

The woman is the enigmatic Jo, always running nowhere and creating havoc, labelled as trouble and diagnosed with a personality disorder. Played by Josephine Rogers, Jo has been in and out of prison all her adult life, but in this particular stint she suffers nightmares and is compelled to run away from the memory of her latest crime, a brutal attack on a man that destroys his career and home life. Josephine Rogers is spellbinding as Jo, with an incredible capacity to distort her face into a variety of expressions that all tell us that Jo is deeply confused, unhappy and defensive.

Jo shares a cell with the sweet natured and music loving Megan, played by Grace Willis as a dreamy creature who never stops dancing and can’t keep her hands still. Although the play’s central plot is about Jo having to confront the victim of her crime, watching the relationship develop between open-hearted Megan and gritty Jo is the key emotional drive of the play, and when tragedy strikes it threatens to derail Jo’s difficult journey towards acceptance of her crime. One criticism I would make is that the tragedy is implied enough for it to be effective and painful watching for the audience, and the appearance of a ghostly memory seems unnecessary and somehow blunts the impact.

The play is noisy, full of screams, music, shouting and mayhem interspersed with moments of jarring string music that at first serves to heighten the cramped tension and sensory overload of the prison setting. As the plot unfolds, the sound becomes more melodic and its connection to the plot is made clear. The Quick is a clever, sharp and grimly realistic play with a full cast of credible and flawed characters, including the beautifully portrayed Sutton, the sympathetic prison officer who helps Jo to open up and start to accept herself. As he says, “There are no excuses, but there are reasons”. The play gives a convincing insight into prison life, prison relationships and the reasons why people end up locked away. It also gives an interesting alternative viewpoint by sympathetically portraying our anti-heroine Jo, someone whose crime is terrible but motiveless, a hideous unleashing of the years of systematic abuse that she had been made to endure.

The Quick is at times not easy to watch, but is certainly very rewarding viewing, with subtle direction from Lucy Richardson (except in the one incident noted earlier), a strong script from Stephanie Jacob and a superb cast.

The Quick is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 13th August. For information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website here.