Director: Madeleine O’Reilly
Writer: Chesca Joy
Imagine If Theatre present a simply stunning show at Slung Low’s Holbeck with headsets for the audience feeding both live and recorded dialogue and music, This begins with a cacophony of voices while the actors (all ex-prisoners) stroll around the outdoor courtyard space. The texts have one common theme: the alienation and isolation felt by the group Imagine If have worked with both in and out of prison.
Then there is some pounding techno music and dry ice on the raised area of the venue. The voice-over switches to Tom who is experiencing red hot jealousy as his girlfriend kisses one of his mates. When the techno revives we see a drug deal on the dance floor with the scorer admitting he would take ‘anything to get me out of my head’. We experience the drug’s effect with the music slowed down and blue smoke following the user as he staggers around the stage.
The next vignette features a Filipino with a suitcase who is attempting to return home but is grabbed by security and thrown in a cell after wisps of red smoke fill the set ominously. Then we are on to Chris, a black prisoner under police escort, who blames his messy childhood and being labelled ‘a bad little boy’ for his present predicament. He leaps on top of his escort vehicle exclaiming, ‘No one feels my pain’. He faces either harsh judgement from society or friends who just want him to commit more crime. The scene ends with plumes of white smoke pouring from the bucket that he was meant to piss in.
Another character is homeless due to his inability to read the bills that Yorkshire Water and British Gas were sending him over payments. And a father recalls the anger felt at the world in his own childhood. His experience of bad events made him turn against God too, though it appears that, after a struggle, he has now found faith, while Joseph has lost his keys at a nightclub and returns to collect the following morning. They are returned but minus a pic of his beloved grandma which triggers an emotional call to his mother: ‘Can I come home?’
Back to the incarcerated Filipino who, after consultation with his keepers, manages to get on his flight home. And then once more we see Chris on his way to jail asking, ‘Who wants to help me?’ The officer replies, rather unhelpfully, ‘Help yourself!’ The homeless guy meets a passing kind stranger, attempting to get to the bottom of what has happened for him to become like this. Sometimes a friendly ear is all it takes but he offers practical help too.
The final scene sees two fathers watching their kids play, exchanging ways in which their roles can be difficult and challenging but worth it in the end. For the finale the entire cast carry on a dish of fire and the soundtrack goes back to the original cacophony of voices, mainly affirmations, ending: ‘I am the phoenix, I will rise again!’
The show benefits from some wonderful contributions from the ex-prisoners both in terms of acting and the ideas for Chesca Joy’s script. Madeleine O’Reilly paces the show well and really brings out the best of the ensemble. While Caitlin Mawhinney’s design and Phil Grainger’s sound really add to the spectacle. A tour de force that celebrates recovery and rehabilitation after prison life without shying away from the many problems involved.
Reviewed on 28th August 2021