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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times