‘Move over Wentworth,’ says the publicity blurb for this production of Hilary Beaton’s play (published 1984) about seven women locked up in a gaol. In fact, television series Wentworth is a ‘re-imagining’ of the Australian television series Prisoner, which debuted in 1979 and ran for 692 episodes till 1986. Ms Beaton’s characters are not a copy of the television show, but given similar themes – shifting power relations, strategic alliances, injustice, dominance and dependence, frustration and boredom, the need for sex, for cigarettes, just for something sweet - the range of her prisoners is similar.
In the rec room, Margorie or ‘Ma’ (Anna Della Rossa), an old lag, a serial offender, supervises and protects the mentally disabled, dependent Lou (Ebony McGuire). Lou is, quite literally, a snatcher of other people’s babies. Prisoners at a loose end drift in and out. Sandy (Andrea Solonge) in for drugs and Kath (Sarah Clarke), a hooker and drug dealer, are fractious mates from outside, antsy, bored and with nothing better to do than gossip, bicker, tease and pick on hapless Lou. Ginny (Belinda Campbell), thin as a whip and just as vicious, fearless and foul-mouthed joins in. Seems there’s been a fracas elsewhere in the gaol and there is much talk of a new inmate Helen (Kerry du Plessis) that makes us fear for her.
Hilary Beaton went on to become an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, but this play, her first, takes some time to develop from a situation into something like a story. It makes the mistake of her on-stage characters chattering – albeit ‘realistically’ – for too long about things occurring off-stage. There are too many names of characters we’ll never see in the mix and we expect the fracas to have more consequence than it turns out to do. Things get a real kick-along with the arrival of Diane aka ‘Boss’ (Jennifer Piper), a lifer and the alpha-female, the real Queen Bee. But Helen turns out to be smarter and more of a threat than expected. After a time jump into Act 2, with sad, tawdry preparations for Christmas, there’s a major power shift that is the real and carefully prepared point of the piece. Brains and the ability to manipulate – rather than merely intimidate – win out and even the big fish in this foetid pond can be left with no allies and therefore with nothing.
In the confines of the Bluestone Church Arts Space, we are very much up close and personal with the restless, dangerous prisoners in their unflattering prison garb. The text is clearly deeply researched if somewhat wordy. There is some humour, usually put-downs, which the audience enjoys, but the secondary characters (so sadly like most ‘criminals’ none too bright) become wearing with their endless rejoinder, ‘F**k off!’ The arrival of Ms Piper’s alpha-female Boss is a relief because, nasty, cruel and menacing as she might be, she is intelligent and articulate.
Director Faran Martin makes the most of the tiny playing space, avoiding patches of static non-action and working her cast hard, but it must be said that the acting is uneven. Ebony McGuire is very good, totally convincing if necessarily one note as the simple Lou, while Belinda Campbell’s Ginny is genuinely scary, a psycho sadist somehow tamed in Act 2. Kerry du Plessis as Helen, the newbie, however, could add some light and shade and variation in emotion to her characterisation. If she’s not cowed and frightened on her entrance, the character has nowhere to go.
‘Women in prison’ has proven an enduringly popular subject, from the cautionary tale movies of the 1930s (or the cynical 1942 Roxie Hart, with Ginger Rogers,that became the equally cynical Chicago), up into the exploitation sub-genre that exploded in the 1960s with titles such as The Big Doll House, Women in Cages or Prison Heat, or the 1980s stage show, the over-the-top Women Behind Bars. Most of these movies and the stage show feature a similar range of characters (the powerful, the corrupt, the victims and those who work the system), sadism and a lot of lesbian nudity in a hot house setting.
Outside In is not one of these. Like the television series Orange Is the New Black, it is a responsible, serious (but not as varied or funny) piece that strives to be real but which falls into perhaps unavoidable melodrama and repetition. That is the nature of the punishing life in prison: grim and grindingly a struggle to survive.
Disclaimer: Michael Brindley was one of the founder writers on the original Prisoner and, for those who remember, wrote Frankie and Doreen’s breakout.