Home » Reviews » Off West End » Little on the Inside, Almeida Theatre

Little on the Inside, Almeida Theatre

Alice Birch
Directed by Lucy Morrison

Pros: Insightful play about female camaraderie in prison that is as rich as reading a book.

Cons: Lack of context at the start isn’t helpful.

Verdict: A powerful, moving, warm and magical piece set simultaneously in a prison and on the beach, underneath a mangrove tree. A theatrically skilful treat.

Courtesy of Clean Break

Little on the Inside is enormous on stage. This is a two-hander about a prison friendship between a pair of women. With little set, simple lighting, no scene or costume change it manages (very successfully) to reveal the tensions inside a prison, unfold a sinister crime in a courtroom, depict a domestic abuse scene and furnish imaginary worlds the characters escape to. Now hang on a minute. Before you start thinking this is a doom-and-gloom play – it isn’t.

Think of the warmth of The Shawshank Redemption and you’ll be closer to the feel of this show. The Almeida’s foyer has been transported, with astroturf, benches (and my favourite, cushions) into what could be a very trite setting for a rendition of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As the sun sets through the glass roofing, you would think a play with these themes would be out of place – but the story isn’t about prison abuses or filled with heavy criticism of ‘the system’. Instead, it depicts how two women cope with isolation from the rest of the world. It is a play about fear and love. Fear caused their crimes. Fear is the punishment for them. Love is how they cope. It highlights that their crimes and defense mechanisms are products of their life circumstances and it shows, beautifully, how they escape – into a fantasy land together that even you get to see.

I happened to be sitting next to the producer’s daughter who was telling me all about how the company, Clean Break, works in prisons, with ex-offenders, with students and you can see that this is a work of love by lovely people. It is a very female piece and for me this was one of the most interesting points to it – the women characters were aggressive, angry and losing control but I saw something that I see rarely depicted in entertainment: a celebration of true female camaraderie. There’s a lot of male camaraderie on screen and in classical plays and the women’s parts tend to get scant exploration – it’s either brushed over, assumed, or interpreted as catty or insincere. This is an extremely believable portrayal, and as someone who has mostly male friendships, was a very insightful experience.

You probably know that when you read a book you get so much more information about the thoughts and motivations of the characters. This work is the closest I’ve ever seen to this in film, TV or stage. The immensely talented Susan Wokoma and Simone James don’t just take on a cast of characters – they play themselves, playing themselves. They play each other but also their perceptions of each other. They break the convention of the play by criticising the above renditions – yet never acknowledge you as an audience. This is quite magical. I have to admit, I know very little of the lives of black women in or out of prison but the way this play manages to give you insight makes you trust the playwright. Alice Birch knows how to create a well considered, believable universe with just great writing, acting and direction even if you don’t know about the amount of research behind it.

By about a third of the way through the play you’ve probably guessed it’s set in a prison, although if you haven’t read the program or blurb you would be none the wiser and I think this lets the play down, even though it neatly comes full circle. The lighting needs a little extra thought because there is a beautiful, glowing sky on the back wall – and there’s a big reflective dish which prevented me (albeit it in an awkward position on a cushion in the front row) from seeing an actors face properly several times due to the glare.

None the less, if you want a theatrically skilful treat, an glimpse into the world of female friendship or a feeling of what prison can do to the soul, this is definitely the play to see.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below! 

Little on the Inside at The Almeida Theatre has now finished, but the Almeida Festival runs until 9th August.
Box Office: 02073594404 or book online at www.almeida.co.uk

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