Woodhill – Edinburgh Fringe 2023, Summerhall

Reviewer: Grace Spencer

Writer: Matt Woodhead

Director: Matt Woodhead

Music: Sami El-Enany

Woodhill is Lung theatre company’s latest addition to their acclaimed catalogue of verbatim drama. It is a gripping exploration of the true experiences of five people whose loved ones died in prison at HMP Woodhill, and condemns the lack of mental health support for imprisoned people in the UK. With Britain having the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and shocking numbers of prison deaths, the piece asks us to bear witness to the grief of affected families and to consider the extent of prison’s ability to respond to social issues.

Writer Matt Woodhead and choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento craft an experience which is both nuanced and direct. The performance centres around three men who took their own lives at Woodhill, named Kevin Scarlett, Stephen Farrar and Chris Carpenter. It casts its net wider still, though, to dissect the ways in which experience of imprisonment intersects with race, gender and class. We hear testimonies from prison officers, academics, architects, and more – Woodhead spent four years conducting interviews and research – but the interpersonal relationships of the individual families that Woodhill follows are still given the space they need.

Dancers Tyler Brazao, Marina Climent, Chris Otim and Miah Robinson move with a jerky, taut physicality and audible grunts, which are visceral reminders of the effort that it takes for families to tell these stories. Throughout the show, chanted names of people who have died at Woodhill are accompanied by showers of soil, leaves, petals, and confetti, in a kind of reverse blooming of cruelly stunted lives. The dancers are accompanied by an intense, throbbing soundtrack composed by Sami El-Enany and designed by Owen Crouch which gets under the skin.

Woodhill is an appeal for justice in a system in which, in the words of a bereaved family member, there is “no quest for liability” for preventable deaths in prison. It is essential political theatre, and a powerful testament to the members of the Woodhill Families group and their quest to turn grief into resistance.

Runs until 27 August 2023 | Image: Alex Powell

The Reviews Hub Score

Gripping political theatre

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