Scene from Chloe Moss's Fatal Light

Perhaps the most interesting thing, collectively, about the three plays that comprise Clean Break’s Re-Charged (selected and re-staged from last year’s six-show run, Charged) is how little prison as a physical institution actually features as a setting, but how overwhelming it is as an idea. For the women in these three very differently written and directed stories there’s no distinction between being free and being imprisoned; society has conspired to lock them into a cell from the moment they were born.

Fatal Light, written by Chloe Moss and directed by Lucy Morrison, tells its story backwards. Beginning with a policewoman breaking the news to Maggie (Ashley McGuire) that her daughter, Jay (Rebecca Scroggs), has killed herself while in prison for burning down her flat, it rewinds time to show the tragic inevitability of this death. It’s an effective technique, turning even the most light-hearted sequence, such as Maggie’s nervous ramblings about organic tea when she first discovers that Jay is pregnant, into a memento mori. When Jay “first” mentions the man from social services whose careless remarks about the state of her flat trigger the erratic behaviour that will lead to her imprisonment and destructive separation from her little girl, Aine (Isabella Mason), it’s chilling.

The performances are uniformly strong. The baffled pain etched across McGuire’s face as her daughter fires a barrage of paranoid verbal abuse at her is heart-rending. Meanwhile, Scroggs as Jay is a fractured ball of rage, fear and desperate love, bouncing off the impassive surfaces of the UK’s social and criminal justice systems. Best of all, though, is child actress Mason, who trips around the stage in almost ghostly imitation of the little girl she’s never been allowed to be. The sad-eyed maturity she conveys as she tries to hold her mother together is moving but never mawkish. Those seeking long-suffering little angels or straightforward victims should look elsewhere; Moss, whose dialogue echoes with the clinking of teaspoons in darkened flats, is too good a writer for that.

The next play, Sam Holcroft’s Dancing Bears, begins with the loathsome Dean coercing his friend’s sister, Charity, into having sex with him before abandoning her when she becomes pregnant. As a consequence she, Babymother and Razor Kay form a girl gang with the aim of standing up to the men who have injured and discarded them. But their mistreatment has left them with no means of communication beyond the flick of a knife and the flash of a razor blade. Soon there’s a court hearing pending and the girls’ relationships with each other descend into violence.

This production, directed by Tessa Walker, has much to admire about it but ultimately it’s the least satisfying of the three. Having the male and the female gang members played by the same trio of actresses is a nice touch, as is the way in which hooded tops are transformed into bundles of babies; but when dialogue spoken by Dean is repeated by Razor Kay as she blackmails the doubt-ridden Charity into staying, the play ceases to engage with the audience and begins shouting its themes at them.

There’s also the problem, when talking about cycles of violence, of where to start. While it’s pretty clear why the girls end up behaving as they do, Holcroft makes no real attempt to explain what turned Dean into such a monster. Walker provides some strong visual hints with the set’s economic wasteland of upturned crates and empty beer boxes, but it’s not enough to save Dancing Bears from feeling incomplete.

Finally, we come to That Almost Unnameable Lust, beautifully written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and adeptly directed by Caroline Steinbeis, who litters the stage with prison-issue grey chairs, legs sticking awkwardly into the air. The play is a jagged exploration of the splintered lives of two prisoners in an all-female prison, Liz and Katherine. Between group meetings with a researching writer who reeks of Blue Peter presenter and whose smile constantly threatens to dissolve into tears, the two women reveal via monologues addressed to the audience how they have come to be where they are.

At these moments, Lenkiewicz’s script is strongly reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, full of finely-judged observations that combine humour with an aching sense of loss. As Liz, Janet Henfrey is long-faced and wearily insightful. She switches effortlessly from eliciting laughter to radiating despair as she self-harms for the brief moment of euphoria it affords her. In contrast, Beatie Edney imbues roly-poly East Anglian mum Katherine with a fierce hurt in which love, anger and frustration are locked together as surely as she is locked behind bars.

The decision to put these three plays with their small casts on the main stage at Soho Theatre was a canny one. At times the actresses seem almost lost in its blackness; as vulnerable as the women this powerful sequence of productions brings so vividly to life.

(At Soho Theatre, from 23 March to 9 April)

Read Tom Wicker’s interview with Caroline Steinbeis.

First published by Exeunt Magazine