Theatre Review: Release

Icon Theatre's political play about ex-offenders is fringe theatre at its best.

Icon Theatre’s Release is political fringe theatre inside and out: winner of the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh last year, the play at the time found itself in the context of the riots which had spread across the country. Now in the tent venue of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, it revisits the ongoing issues surrounding the criminal justice system in the UK.

Release follows the lives of three ex-offenders from the day they are released from prison. The production, devised entirely by the company,  is based on two years of extensive research and interviews with ex-offenders, probation officers, criminologists and hostel managers. And each situation is unique, exposing the complexities of criminal psychology and the randomness of reform.

The sense of entrapment, of pent-up frustration, is dominant even as the audience enters the tent. The three actors are each confined to a panel of the stage where they perform push-ups, jog on the spot, mime the rolling of cigarettes; the constricting routine of cell life, all to the sound of the tinny tannoy of Big Brother speak and metal upon metal. When the inmates are released, they are still trapped in their own minds, confused about who they are and their place in the world.

Becky leaves prison a bag of nerves. She trusts nobody, least of all herself, and yet has the extraordinary determination to find employment and turn her life around. That she has clearly changed since her conviction makes a positive case for the rehabilitative power of prison; that she is rejected from 63 jobs because of her record makes us question the point. Though much of her mental state is like that of a child, for Becky, the concept of starting afresh is a farce.

Kyle is a cheeky Scotsman who has a slightly more positive approach: prison has not rid him of his cockiness, nor his communication skills. He shouts and swears profusely, but he is laid-back rather than angry, telling touching stories of his childhood and enthusing about his favourite films. He befriends Minoj, who lives in the same hostel, and though the two men couldn’t be more different, their rapport is touching. Though Kyle struggles to find work and adjust to the real world, his face comes alive when they are together.

Perhaps because of his reserve, Hitesh’s character seems slightly less well developed than the other two. With a black leather jacket and a cigarette behind his ear, he epitomises the East London geezer: passive-aggressive, detached and seemingly uncaring. The relationship with his middle-class probation officer is humorous, cruel, yet also seems slightly unrealistic.

It is easy to take for granted the acting skills of a top theatre company. But when actors embody characters as superbly as this, you can’t help but notice. Verity Hewlett uses her entire body to accommodate the role of Becky: stooping and shifting her eyes from side to side, taking short, shallow breaths and fidgeting constantly. Hewlett is also present in Hitesh’s story, as his middle-class probation officer, a role that is equally brilliantly observed, and hilarious in its parody.

Shane Shambhu flits between two very different roles with just as much ease. While Hitesh is a moody Cockney, Minoj, an important part of Kyle’s life after his release, is a PhD student from Bangalore whose accessories are his spectacles, Tupperware and mug of tea. Shambhu’s Indian accent could not be more authentic, nor could his penchant for malapropisms, the present participle, and the traditional Indian head wiggle.

And Jason Harvey, who plays rough and tough Kyle, is just as apt as the sensitive florist who works with Becky.

Release has a didactic element, too: on the broken doors at the back of the stage – presumably symbolising the never-ceasing barriers that the characters come up against – is projected, at one point, the shocking statistic that in 2011, 27% of male ex-offenders found employment – and only 13% of their female counterparts. Though Icon could well have exploited this practice further, the figure in its isolation stays with you and leaves far more of an impact than it would were it drowned in endless statistics.

Every few scenes are interspersed with an ensemble episode of the three characters, presumably back in prison, venting their frustration through the mimes of smoking, boxing, exercise.  They talk over each other in buzz words and phrases, accompanied by the thud of bass and getting louder and louder until the scene reaches its climax. This feels strained and awkward, rather like a school play that is trying too hard to be edgy. But it is the play’s only real flaw, and the power of the individual stories overshadows it so well that it hardly matters.

Bringing Release to London is only a good thing, because the more people who watch it, the better. It will compel audiences to more effectively understand the ex-criminals who are so ostracised from society, and to begin a dialogue about the justice of crime and punishment.

Release, Photo: Icon Theatre
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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution