Exhibition shows how ex prisoners gained a voice through theatre

Zawe Ashton in There are Mountains

Zawe Ashton in Clean Break's 2012 production There Are Mountains. The Handmaid's Tale actress has also written a play for the Kentish Town company - Credit: Clean Break

In 1979, two women met in HMP Durham and attempted to perform Jesus Christ Superstar in the yard.

Their plans were blocked when it was deemed a security risk, but it was the beginning of a unique theatre company. It wasn’t until they were transferred to HMP Askham Grange that they were able to start making theatre together. They joined the prison’s annual panto and eventually set up their own drama group.

With the support of liberal governor Susan McCormick, Jenny Hicks and Jacqueline Holborough and their group went on to become the first British prisoners to perform outside prison. Upon release, the duo formed Clean Break as a support group for women with experience of the criminal justice system, and a way of discovering a voice through theatre.

Clean Break

Early Clean Break photograph from the I Am A Theatre exhibition at Swiss Cottage library. - Credit: Clean Break Archive

With early work staged at Jacksons Lane and Camden Irish Centre, they eventually moved from a Camden base into purpose built headquarters in Patshull Road Kentish Town, running residencies in prisons, courses for ex-offenders and commissioning an annual play about women in the criminal justice system.

At a time of limited opportunities for women in theatre, they staged work by Winsome Pinnock, Rebecca Prichard, and Lucy Kirkwood, and helped actor and playwright Zawe Ashton, designer Es Devlin, director Gemma Bodinetz and others to "hone and develop their craft".

A pandemic-delayed 40th anniversary exhibition I Am A Theatre opens at Swiss Cottage Library featuring photographs, press cuttings, letters, posters, and film. Divided into four sections, it starts with the founding years of '79-'89, including original correspondence and a film of Killers by Holborough which aired on Channel 4.

Clean Break Archive

It Felt Empty When The Heart Went was a 2000 Clean Break play about sex trafficking by Lucy Kirkwood - Credit: Clean Break Archive

Another section spotlights the 100 or more plays performed over four decades, spotlighting a work from each decade.

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"It gives a sense of the range of work," says Heritage project manager Claire Stone. "Killers is based on Jackie's experiences inside Durham, a maximum security wing they reopened for female prisoners after being condemned as inhumane for male prisoners. The wing had 30 women who weren't high security prisoners, but quite ordinary women, who had ended up in a bad situation, treated as monsters."

Based on research of prisons in the UK and Jamaica, Pinnock's 1996 play Mules "dives behind how women become involved in drug trafficking for the chance of a better life, not realising how dangerous it can be."

Mules by Winsome Pinnock

Mules by Winsome Pinnock - Credit: Sarah Ainslie

Kirkwood's 2009 play It Felt Empty When the Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now deals with sex trafficking "women being criminalised while being victims of crimes themselves," as Dijana tries to navigate a difficult world and find her way out.

Devised and staged by women inside Askham Grange And There Are Mountains, by Chloe Moss, centres around "release and how end of sentence is not the end for a lot of women rebuilding their families and finding work with the fear of being outside".

Clean Break's Members Programme offers a foundation of learning and skills in performance, creativity and wellbeing for women with experience of the criminal justice system and those at risk of entering it at their Kentish Town home - "a safe and welcoming space for women with experience of the criminal justice system where members can expand their professional opportunities". One such, Amanda Richardson is now a trustee after taking several courses "a lovely example of the journey you can take within the company."


A still from Sweatbox by Chloë Moss image of Funke Adeleke - director Anna Herrmann - Credit: Sara Dane

During lockdown they took the programme online with panel events and discussions, and reached out to women in prisons who were "kept in their cells for 23 hours a day and denied visiting rights." 

Voices From Prison, invited women from all over the UK to send in writing to be performed by members at an online event. Meanwhile, new work Sweatbox whose tour in a prison van was cut short by Covid, was turned into a film (one of the van doors is in the exhibition).

"The pandemic forced us to expand how we make work and modernise the way we reach audiences," says Stone. "The lovely side of it is online events reached large audiences in a completely different way."

She adds: "Camden has been our home since the 1980s. We are trying to share our history and raise awareness of Clean Break as a local asset to connect with and get involved with, but it's aso a celebration of women's creativity in all of its manifestations."

I Am A Theatre runs in Swiss Cottage gallery until July 31. https://www.cleanbreak.org.uk/productions/iamatheatre/