Clean Break throws a spotlight on women in the justice system

The Kentish Town theatre company stages six short plays about women in the criminal justice system.

KENTISH Town theatre company Clean Break has enjoyed a run of well-earned success in the last 12 months.

Two of its commissioned plays have won prestigious awards and a piece co-written by women in Holloway prison scooped the Koestler Gold Award for playwrighting.

Their latest project takes over Soho Theatre with six specially-commissioned short plays about women in the criminal justice system by top women writers Chloe Moss, Winsome Pinnock, Rebecca Prichard, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, EV Crowe and Sam Holcroft.

Under the banner – Charged – they tackle addiction, mental illness, child sex trafficking, death in custody and girl gangs, dramatising such diverse figures as female police officers and a daughter uprooted after her mother’s conviction.

Lenkiewicz’s play, That Almost Unnameable Lust, highlights the fate of older women in prison as two lifers – one electively mute – join a writing workshop.

“Drama programmes set in prison tend to focus on younger women having cat fights and I wondered how it might be if you were inside in your 60s,” she says.

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“In our ageist society, women feel less and less visible as they get older and I wondered how that would translate where there is also a question of being institutionalised by a life in and out of prison.”

Lenkiewicz spent time with eight women at Peterborough prison talking about their experiences.

“There was no workshop, it was purely talking. They were fantastic, very open, incredibly articulate and wise. I felt they enjoyed being listened to.

“My general impression was of the camaraderie and close friendships that got them through and of anger that they were even inside. It seemed a waste of energy. There was no-one who was a danger to the streets. One had been hooked on drugs, two were involved with fraud and the only one who had been violent was as a result of decades of violence against her. Who is to judge someone who has been brutalised for years and fights back?”

Lenkiewicz was struck by the difficulty of accurately representing prison life. Her play is told through the monologues of two prisoners and the writer running the workshop.

“As a writer, you go into prison for a day as an emotional tourist. The writer character conveys how hard it is to reflect life there – to say this is how she perceived things – she’s a younger more innocent version of me.

“The play melds reality with imagination. It’s about friendship and the affinity between the two lifers and about public life versus inner life – the imagination and thoughts that have to work overtime to survive all that time by yourself in your cell.”

Rebecca Prichard is grateful to Clean Break for commissioning her 1998 breakthrough play Yard Gal, which she wrote after working with female young offenders at Bullwood Hall prison. She encountered a disproportionate number of young black women involved in gang-related violence and was among the first to write about young girls imprisoned for belonging to street gangs.

“It was a really good experience, it kick-started my career and remains my best known play,” she says.

For Charged, she has written about two 10-year-old Nigerian girls trafficked into prostitution. Dream Pill unfolds in real time as the girls – imprisoned in a brothel – chat between tricks.

“I was shocked by the scale of sex trafficking. It’s a clandestine activity and hard to monitor but one of the prime source countries is Nigeria where 10,000 women and girls have left one particular state and ended up in Europe.”

Prichard says the phenomenon has echoes of slavery and is linked with a rise in the consumption of child pornography.

“It’s very disturbing that many trafficked women are held as prostitutes or used for pornography. People are getting addicted to internet porn looking for more and more extreme forms. They look at child porn even though that’s not initially what interested them.”

Prichard’s characters address the audience – a device she hopes will humanise them.

“I wanted them to have a relationship to the audience and to write from the perspective of children, the way they deal with their fears and things they find hard to talk about. They’ve been forced to accept so much, they are not sure what an adults’ view of their predicament would be.”

Lenkiewicz is a huge fan of Clean Break, which was founded 40 years ago by two prisoners at Askham Grange and also runs drama-based education programmes both in prisons and at its Patshull Road headquarters.

“It’s incredibly important the work that they do. When you are in the building, you can feel this huge energy from the women coming in.”

Prichard agrees: “You know what their values are, they are open about valuing a gendered perspective.

“I don’t know if there is another theatre company in London brave enough to put this play on and, although we were all given a very specific brief and a lot of the issues we are exploring are extreme forms of exploitation of women, they are also taking the temperature for women in general.”

o Charged is presented over two performances of three plays and runs until November 27.