They had it coming

Theatre - Jailbirds sing and dance their way through prison high jinks, writes Michael Portillo

Now that our lattes bear inscriptions such as "The liquid in this container may be hot", it is perhaps not surprising that Pimlico Opera's guidance to patrons attending its production of Chicago inside a women's prison advised them not to bring firearms. We were also obliged to leave our mobile phones behind, and were frisked by female officers using what they call, theatrically, a wand. There was intense interest in whether we were carrying chewing gum wrapped in silver foil, the foil being the problem. The mind boggles.

Her Majesty's Prison Bronzefield, close to Heathrow Airport, is rather beautiful. The floors sparkle and there is a pleasant smell of cleanliness. The National Health Service has much to learn. The large hall where prisoners meet their families is bright and friendly, with an attractive kiddies' corner. Yes, dear New Statesman readers, this is a private jail, built, owned and operated by UK Detention Services, "setting standards in businesses with social purpose" and "providing safety, dignity and opportunity for women". I have not reached the fiction part of the evening yet.

The show was mounted in the jail's vast gymnasium. It held terraced seating for several hundred spectators, a very substantial lighting rig, a decently elaborate set and, behind that, an orchestra pit.

An elegant woman in her thirties strode forward to make a pre-performance announcement. I assumed she was from Pimlico Opera. "I'm Janine McDowell, director of Bronzefield," she said. We would see some of the "talented, sassy and vibrant" prisoners performing, she purred. At the end of the show, we were asked to remain seated until it was clear that "arrangements behind stage were satisfactory". You do not usually have to wait until the cast is back in the cells before leaving a theatre.

It made me realise what a brave risk the prison authorities had taken by allowing these performances to occur. For six weeks they had to monitor many extra comings and goings, invigilate numerous rehearsals, and probe the arrival of costumes and building materials. Over a few days, 2,000 members of the public would pass through the prison gates (well, glass doors, actually). Any normal bureaucracy would have found a hundred reasons to make the enterprise impossible.

A few days before opening night a bullet was found in the jail. A top-to-bottom search was launched. But the show had to go on. The production surmounted an even bigger disaster: one of the cast was unexpectedly granted early release.

The lights went up on the chorus line, consisting entirely of prisoners saucily dressed in black lace. They looked gorgeous. Three or four of the women could have been models. Their smiles were generous and warm, and they sang heartily throughout the evening.

Chicago is set in a women's prison. In an early number, the members of the chorus line reveal to us one by one how they murdered their faithless men: with an axe, a gun and arsenic. It was kind of cute, because as far as you could tell from the programme notes, the longest that any of the cast was serving was seven years for "importation". Bronzefield is, as I said, handy for Heathrow. "Fuck it, sorry," said one of the women when she forgot her murderess's lines, to sympathetic cheers from the audience.

Other autobiographical entries in the programme included: "I am here for a crime I didn't commit" and "I am from Latvia, 19 years old. Chicago was an amazing project which made us really happy and we forgot about the depres-sion and stressful time." That woman, Inga Kacegarora, wants to be a professional dancer. Certainly, she moved about the stage with exceptional grace. Tina Smith wrote: "Nuff respect to the staff that helped us through this you had nuff patience."

Two prisoners took starring roles. Zodwa Ibe played Matron Mama Norton. She has great personality, a strong stage presence and a good singing voice. She has done theatre before. But Brenda Gala-Ndebele, who was outstanding in the large part of Velma Kelly, wrote just seven words in the programme: "I didn't even know I could sing." She certainly can - and she can act, too. In a superb scarlet costume she held up well alongside Jennifer Meldrum, a professional singing the role of Velma's prison rival, Roxy Hart. Meldrum is excellent, by the way.

The production itself was highly demanding. The chorus routines were complex and the women were rarely off-stage. The costumes (designed by Holly Waddington) were brilliant and the cast had to make many quick changes, behind torn curtains rigged up in the gym.

It was a really entertaining show. While we watched, we forgot where we were. We returned to reality when the house lights came up on a row of warders flanking the stalls. We filed out through the electronic fingerprint reader, deeply moved by the evening's experience.

Congratulations to Pimlico's chief executive, Wasfi Kani OBE, and to the show's conductor, John Beswick, and its direc-tor, Michael Moody. How about Sweeney Todd next, say at Wormwood Scrubs? No, Pimlico did that back in 1991.