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A CurtainUp London Review

"Have you ever felt you were standing exactly to the left of your life?"
— Sophia
Joanna Horton in [Blank]
(Photo: Helen Maybanks)
The charity for helping women prisoners Clean Break has had a long dramatic association with the Donmar Warehouse and their latest co-production with the National Theatre is a fifth of Alice Birch's play [BLANK], written as 100 scenes from which companies can construct a work. All scenes are to do with women in and out of prison and their issues with their children, their addictions, their relationships and their housing. The original was much longer and shown as a part of the National Theatre's youth festival Connections in 2018.

Articles in the theatre programme question the hurt to others that the incarceration of women brings as opposed to the protection to society of imprisoning these offenders. We see an addict (Zainab Hasan), break into her family home and confront and threaten her mother (Thusitha Jayasundera) for money. Her mother is not an enabler and her daughter resists any other help. Later we hear that Zainab has died as the news is brought to her grief stricken mother by someone (Jemima Rooper) with no experience of bereavement or of Zainab.

Another woman (Kate O'Flynn) leaves her children alone in the house while she goes out and is confronted by her friend or sister or maybe social worker (Jemima Rooper) and in later scenes her children express how much they dislike her new man Richard. This raises the issue of many women allowing abusive partners near their children. There are no male actors in Clean Break productions and some of the actors will have experienced being in prison themselves.

Other scenes show a woman and her children turned away from a safe refuge because it is full and children who are admitted to foster care while their mother is in prison. A grandmother (Jackie Clune) refuses to help her desperate daughter in law (Joanna Horton) with her own grandchildren. A woman (Ayesha Antoine) gives birth in a prison cell and frets that the place in the sought after mother and baby unit for prisoners is too far away from her existing children to visit. In a final scene, a grown up daughter (Kate O'Flynn) visits her mother (Lucy Edkins) who has just been released after a lifetime in prison and questions the damage done to her own life by the lack of mothering.

These stories are not fictional but have been gathered from women with experience of prison. The longest scene is also the finally numbered 100. Dinner Party. Two older women, (Jackie Clune and Thusitha Jayasundera) host a Lesbian Pride dinner party with other LGBT women. Ostensibly to introduce one woman (Kate O'Flynn)'s new girlfriend (Shona Babayemi) to the group, the women drink wine, order drugs and dine on designer Lebanese food. They are exaggerating the global effect of the # Me Too movement. A child (Grace Doherty) comes downstairs and takes a glass of wine which the adults allow. She is a 12 year old. This affluent and self applauding middle class scene is taken apart by Shona as she shocks them out of complacency. Why does society allow drug taking and child abuse by these professional women? How are they different from those who fall at the criminal justice system hurdles?
Rosie Elnile's two level set allows playing in differing compartments as well as conveying a prison institution in some scenes. Mental heath and suicide is explored as the women self destruct. Performances vary but Shona Babayemi is outstanding in disrupting the self congratulatory dinner party.

Maria Aberg as director has chosen 22 of the 100 scenes written by Alice Birch to produce a production running at just under two hours. There are so many examples of drug desperation and children at risk I am not sure that a case is made for treating women offenders in different environments unless we make sure that the children can come first.

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Written by Alice Birch
Directed by Maria Aberg
Starring: Jemima Rooper, Kate O'Flynn, Tusitha Jayasundera, Jackie Clune, Shona Babayemi
With: Ayesha Antoine, Sophia Brown, Grace Doherty, Lucy Edkins, Zainab Hasan, Zaris-Angel Hator, Joanna Horton, Petra Letang, Leah Mondesir-Simmods, Ashna Rabheru, Taya Tower
Design: Rosie Elnile
Lighting Design: Jess Bernberg
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Movement Director: Ayse Tashkiran
Musical Director: Cat Beveridge
Fight Director: Rachel Bown Williams for RC Annie Ltd
Video Director: Heta Multanen
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 30th November 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd October 2019 evening performance at The Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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