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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism