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24:7 Reviews: The Cell

Kevin Bourke on the very disturbing Michael Crowther play

Published on July 25th 2012.

24:7 Reviews: The Cell

WRITTEN by Michael Crowley, with input from some of the young offenders at Lancaster Farms, where he's writer-in-residence, this is a powerful, fearless and challenging new play that sets out to confront some of the problems that afflict our prison system. 

It won't be to everyone's taste, I should warn you now.

Scully is a desperate man, driven to the end of his tether by the terrifying state of the prison system, where suicides, cruelty and corruption are rife.

Some of the audience at the performance I attended were outraged at the genuinely-shocking final scene. Less legitimately, others might simply not want to hear some of the appalling truths about the injustices in our justice system and the awful effects it can have on those we rely on to do society's dirty work for us. 

But with a couple of strong performances and a searing script, this is already one of the talking-points of the 24:7 Theatre Festival, an event, incidentally, that seems to feature a lot of tough, gritty productions this year. 

Does this tell us something about the state of the nation? Or is it as much coincidence as the fact that two other 24:7 productions which I just happened to see back-to-back, namely Stars Are Fire and The Transit of Venus, both involved astronomy? 

The set-up here is that prison officer Scully (Paul Regan) and inmate Kelly (David Barlow) are trapped in a hostage situation in Kelly's cell. But who is the real prisoner? 

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Scully is a desperate man, driven to the end of his tether by the terrifying state of the prison system, where suicides, cruelty and corruption are rife, and there simply aren't enough resources to even begin to address the problems. 

One of Crowley's objectives here, he happily admits,  is to give a fairer picture than we're used to seeing of the prison officers, and we're a long, scary way away from the cliches of Porridge or any number of movies and TV programmes. 

But nor does he give the prisoners a free ride with a lot of liberal cant. Even though Kelly can seem sympathetic, and even funny at times, the audience are never allowed to forget that he's in prison for a good reason. 

The question that hovers over the whole production, though, is just how we want our prisons to be run and why are we so scared of finding out the truth about what really goes on in them? 

That said, The Cell is no mere piece of agit-prop but a chilling and thrilling contemporary drama that is highly recommended to thinking adult audiences.

My Arms is at Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks, Oldham Road, City centre. The 24:7 Theatre Festival runs from 20 - 27 July. More than 70 performances will take place over eight Festival days in New Century House – head office of The Co-operative – and Three Minute Theatre, in Affleck’s Palace.  Find more information, show times and how to book tickets (£8 / £6) at: www.247theatrefestival.co.uk

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