“Anyone can end up in prison,” explains writer, director and actor Clare Snape. “Working in prisons, I realised that very early on. You just don’t know what might be around the corner. Life can turn on a sixpence, as one of the characters says in my first play.”
‘Inside Out’, which premiered at Quarndon Village Hall from 28th to 30th November, is a series of three linked plays exploring personal stories related to imprisonment. Billed as ‘tales of life, death, love, redemption and forgiveness’, they present an emotionally charged and thoughtful insight into some of the complexities which lie behind every individual’s journey to prison.
“There are reasons that have made people do what they do,” states Clare. “Everyone’s got a story to tell. We tend to stereotype prisoners. I wrote these plays to challenge some of the unhelpful stereotypes out there. Prisoners are human beings – they may have done bad things but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. We can all make mistakes.”
This empathetic perspective permeates all three plays, the first of which (‘Three Women, Three Stories, One Prison’) successfully presents the contrasting backgrounds of a group of women serving time. Leni Robson plays Jo, a serial offender from a supportive and loving home, with a confident swagger which belies her vulnerability and pain. Her story of drug and alcohol addiction rings true, as does her desperation to break the offending cycle. A superbly harmonised ‘Amazing Grace’, sung in duet with Clare Snape, nicely highlights the beauty which can be found in unlikely places.
New inmate Denise, played with palpable despair and fear by Sonia Hardy, is in for fraud and an attack on her ex-husband which had unintended serious consequences. She movingly captures the bewilderment and disorientation of a woman struggling to adjust to life behind bars. Her victimisation at the hands of two bullies (strong performances from Cheryl Roberts and Sue Green as women hardened by the prison system and fearful of showing any weakness) exposes the power dynamics at play in the harsh world of prison. Convicted arsonist Mary, played by Debs Simpson in a touching performance, provides some comic relief, turning from funny (“I’d have set fire to him”) to pitiable as her fears about being released back into society after so many years inside are shared with the audience.
A deeply moving relationship between a brother and sister sits at the heart of the following piece, a duologue entitled ‘Ghosts of the Past’. There is heartfelt chemistry between Alex and Charlie, brilliantly played by Clare Snape and Chris Scott, in this cleverly structured story which sees both actors embody a host of characters who haunt the siblings’ pasts. A death in the family sets off a chain of events with consequences which echo down the decades in an affecting and personal story of love, loss, pride and ultimately forgiveness. Clare Snape conveys Alex’s despair and hopelessness powerfully: mourning that she is no longer “anyone’s little girl” and Chris Scott is superb as Charlie, her fiercely proud brother. There’s a twist in this tale which packs an emotional punch as love triumphs over bitterness and resentment.
The final piece, ‘Second Chances’, shifts the focus to the aftermath of a prison sentence which has already been served. James and his estranged father Richard struggle to reconnect after a 15-year break in a story of murder, sacrifice and forgiveness. Richard Whitehorn delivers a tender, warm and intelligent performance as a father seeking answers: prison has given him the time and space to process the events which led to his conviction and the compassionate focus on building a relationship with his son is sensitively realised. Chris Scott is both intense and impassioned as James, a son in the grip of powerful emotions as he is forced to confront his demons. There is an emotional truth to his pain on stage which is deeply affecting. And there’s strong support from Leni Robson as Emma, James’ wife, as she struggles to connect with a husband traumatised by his past.
“There’s a lot of emotion in all of the pieces,” says Clare. “It’s been so interesting exploring such different characters and my excellent cast have risen to the challenge of understanding and bringing each one of them to life for our audiences. The three plays are very different, although they’ve all got a connection to crime and imprisonment. My hope is that people will think about the lives of my characters, many of them based on real people I met whilst working in prisons, after they’ve left the theatre. As I said, anyone can end up in prison.”
Seeking to understand and empathise with offenders does not have to be at the expense of sympathy for victims, as this powerful and though-provoking evening of theatre testifies.