It’s grim inside jail where sex, drugs and favours are traded to stay alive.
Tina Jay’s new prison drama, Held, a compilation of her earlier one-act plays Walking and Dog City, opened last night at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre and it is unrelenting in its misery.
This brutal tale of five inmates who are banged up for violent crimes, is tense and wretched but the story stays with you long after leaving the theatre.
If anything, the small stage, surrounded by black walls, enhances the feeling of claustrophobia that inmates must experience in their prison cells and we can empathise when one old lag yearns to stand in an open field.
There is no room for compassion, lightness or hope. Porridge this is not. This is a tragic and shocking foray into a world most of us know little about.
But Jay does know her stuff. Her experience of working in a prison, and additional research, gives the production authenticity – which makes it all the more bleak.
Here, in this un-named top security jail, the inmates are reduced to behaving like animals. It’s dog eat dog with a hierarchy that dictates if you live, die, or scrape by, doped up with illicitly obtained drugs.
Held is clichéd at times – so much has been screened about prisoners and their conditions that the public feel they’ve heard it all – but perhaps their real lives are a cliché.
Most have been abused or neglected as children and the five in play – Ryde, Cal, Sleat, Fynn and Jamie – fit every stereotype and pigeonhole.
The playwright’s understanding of their screwed up lives sometimes borders on the simplistic. Jay’s dialogue begs compassion but little is given to the lives they have scarred by their actions and her textbook characters offer no mitigation.
Thousands of people endure similar upbringings but they don’t all end up feral and locked up.
Jay has assembled an interesting cast with two screen actors – Duran Fulton Brown (The Musketeers, Jason Bourne, Jekyll & Hyde) and Wolfblood’s Jack Brett Anderson, and Anthony Taylor, who has a wealth of stage experience behind him.
The first act, expanded from Walking, is a halting and uneven two-hander between Anderson’s new arrival, Jamie, and his long-term cellmate, Sleat (Taylor).
Over the course of two months the two men form an uneasy friendship. First-timer, Jamie, is full of bluster and naive while world-weary Sleat knows how the system works.
“What are you in for?” he asks the boy. “I got caught.”
We experience the boredom and frustration the men feel, yet director Richard Elson fails to fuel any chemistry between Anderson and Taylor and their performances are strained and disjointed with the plot frequently sagging – until the act’s explosive, though predictable (or perhaps I’ve watched too many prison dramas), finale.
Held warms up in the second act (Dog City) with a complete change of pace and characters. Anderson returns as yet another victim, Fynn, a needy drug addict who relies entirely on his lover, Cal (Duran Fulton Brown).
Cal is dangerous, intimidating and exuding menace. He strides into the prison toilets, where he meets the simpering Fynn, and he’s oozing testosterone, a muscle vest barely covering his powerfully built chest.
Yet it soon becomes apparent that the tough guy has a weak spot – Fynn – and one which “top dog,” drug baron, Ryde (Taylor in far more confident form), readily exploits.
Despite the intimacy of the auditorium it is, at times, difficult to hear and understand Fulton Brown’s murmuring, gruff voiced Cal (though that could be because he frequently has his mouth buried in Fynn’s neck) but he gives an incendiary performance as Ryde’s sadistic enforcer.
Jack Brett Anderson also ups his game as the vulnerable Fynn who is desperate to win his freedom.
A raw, shocking, thought-provoking drama.
Held runs at Tristan Bates Theatre until June 17.
Tina Jay’s prison drama, Held, holds nothing back. A raw, shocking, thought-provoking insight into life inside.