Writers: Ella Church and Harriet Troup
Director: Grace Church
One minute you are the instrument of social justice eager to promote rehabilitation theory, the next you are cleaning up all kinds of substances and routinely chatting about last night’s TV with convicted murderers, a transformation that takes only six weeks. Former prison officers Ella Church and Harriet Troup have turned their riches to rags experience into new play Cell Outs showing at the Camden People’s Theatre as part of it new talent season.
Joining a Grad Scheme intended for rehabilitation officers, Ella and Harriet have grand ideas about prison reform, hoping to start dramas clubs and meaningful exchange with prisoners. When they find themselves taking the same training as full prison officers and subsequently assigned to separate male and female prisons, they are swept into the system, soon becoming as jaded and numb as their colleagues.
Church and Troup’s 80-minute comedy-drama is a fascinating multi-character piece which feels like a comprehensive overview of their two years working in prisons that manages to be tongue-in-cheek entertainment without losing either the trauma or the humanity of life behind bars. Cell Outs maintains a chronological structure which explores their friendship and respective struggles while simultaneously taking a thematic approach to dealing with racist or dismissive colleagues, adapting to the daily routines before honestly exploring self-harm, drugs, violence and prisoner suicide and its consequences.
The separation of realities is something the writers are keen to stress, emphasising the world-within-a-world that prison becomes where there is community, even family feeling but, at the same time, where ordinary rules and standards don’t apply. Church and Troup reflect quite meaningfully on the growing disassociation from prisoners’ pain and their own blunted emotional responses, something which continues to trouble them while acknowledging their behaviours would be inappropriate in another real-world context.
It is dark subject matter with plenty of trigger warnings, yet Cell Outs strikes the right balance of levity and seriousness, dressing its commentary in witty dialogue, original music and a warmth that draws the audience into their world with Church and Troup unafraid to mine and revel in their own hapless naivety. It feels authentic, bolstered by interview recordings with former colleagues reflecting on their exhausting but defining time as prison officers that sit well with the verbatim approach.
Playing all the roles, Church and Troup are chameleonic in their ability to rapidly shift between characters and accents while equally navigating their own trajectories as fictionalised versions of themselves. There’s a lot of fun to be had in their layered performances as military-style trainers and fey lecturers, seen-it-all colleagues and all kinds of official in a fast-paced story.
What they never do is play the prisoners, mock or judge them and that is crucial to the success of Cell Outs, this sense of everyone being in it together with a respect for anyone continuing to live like that long after Church and Troup formed their theatre company. It’s not a hopeful show, those grand plans for reform slowly leak away as does the belief that anything can really change, but this energised drama from a promising duo has put that time to good use.
Runs until 30 January 2022