Stitchers – Jermyn Street, London

Writer: Esther Freud

Director: Gaby Dellal

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

With an overcrowded prison system, notable reoffending rates and high instances of suicide, there is an ongoing debate about the appropriate response to crime –  should we punish or rehabilitate. Lady Anne Tree firmly believed in the latter and spent a lifetime visiting prisoners and, in one extraordinary story, essentially running a sewing circle now dramatized by Esther Freud in her new play Stitchers, which had its premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

In 1997, to earn extra money four prisoners join a needlework class taught by aristocrat Lady Anne Tree intending to sell their work as cushion covers and pin cushions. As they become increasingly proficient, the men begin to shed their tough exterior finding a new pride and meaning in their task. But Tommy refuses to join in, and as his remand stretches out, he finds the confinement increasingly difficult to control.

Initially it seems that Freud’s debut play will be one of those stories where a group of unlikely companions manage to achieve something special by working together, the kind of purposefully heart-warming plot that is stock-in-trade for the British film industry. But Stitchersis more complex and pointed than that, with Freud making a determine case for the humanity of prisoners and the wrong-headed approach of our current correctional facilities.

It has several dramatic drivers that help to create a rich pattern of life within the cells, as well as the overarching context of bureaucratic inertia and disinterest in which Lady Anne was attempting reform. The weekly gathering and growing pride in their creations leads to further knowledge about the crimes committed, taking us into the individual lives in more depth, mirroring the way in which Lady Anne also takes refuge in her campaigning. And in the background, there are the instances of brutality, trading for luxuries, comradeship and even warder strikes that are familiar aspects of many prison dramas.

This all makes for a thought-provoking and engaging show, but the over-reliance on short scenes-  much more usual in film and television for which Freud has previously written – mean the wider prisoner group are still a little sketchy with only one or two distinct characteristics each, while the big confrontation that signals the end of the play feels rushed. Quite by accident, the show implies that only those who consider themselves innocent benefitted from sewing, while Tommy, whose misdemeanour resulted from a loss of temper, only becomes more detached and unstable as the play unfolds.

Leading the cast, Sinead Cusack adopts a crisp accent, keeping it on the right side of caricature, and takes a firm headmistress-like tone with the men in the early scenes. But there is a warmth in Cusack’s performance that binds the men to Lady Anne as she develops their skills and their confidence. There is also plenty of depth in the performance, suggesting the grief and loss the character channels into her interest in the “underdog”, which Cusack neatly links to Lady Anne’s own feelings of isolation and emprisonment.

As Tommy, Frankie Wilson is a ball of pent-up frustration, reflecting the consequences of endless waiting within the criminal justice system. His initial sulkiness and naivety about prison life soon develops into a bond with cellmate Lukasz (Michael Nardone) that could be expanded and there are open questions about why Tommy is unable to find solace in sewing along with everyone else.

Freud has created a cast of characters who are refreshingly diverse, without making it their only purpose in the story. Michael Nardone’s Lukasz reflects on living in Britain while supporting a family at home and is the most rounded of the sewing club members. Martin Docherty as Busby who becomes devoted to sewing artichoke patterns and Trevor Laird’s Len whose wife is terminally ill on the outside, are repeat offenders with plenty more to say about their experiences and the extent to which making quilts and needlework has changed their outlook.

Designer Liz Cooke and Lighting Designer William Reynolds have worked wonders in the tiny Jermyn Street space, creating the illusion of a large prison with multiple cells, allowing the action to flow quickly to different spaces. Freud has created a set of potentially interesting characters in a convincing world who have a lot more to tell us. Stitchers is passionate plea for a different approach to prison management and the real value in creating opportunities for rehabilitation.

Runs until 23 June 2018 | Image: Contributed

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