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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era