Little on the Inside: truth and illusion behind bars

For fans of renowned outreach-program-cum-theatre-company Clean Break, the setting of Little on the Inside seems all too familiar. Set up 35 years ago by two women prisoners, the company has built its reputation on taking untold stories as well unknown – at-risk or ex-con – talents and putting them to work to produce original theatre. This play, penned by lauded up-and-comer Alice Birch, takes the company right back to its beginnings.

‘A’ and ‘B’ are two female inmates who escape the screams, the screws and soul-sapping misery of prison life by escaping to their own imaginary wonderland – a ‘patch of grass’ where they are together, in love, and staring at the sea. For all the good work and fine productions to Clean Break’s name, it’s hard not to approach it all as an exercise in charity worthiness that lets the story of the production trump the story on stage for the sake of pulling a few heartstrings and ticking a few more arts-funding-application boxes. But, as the play unfurls, housed in the fittingly cramped and steriliser-scented Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall, it touches on something the Arts Council doesn’t have a drop-down-box option for – something profound.

Estella Daniels and Sandra Reid offer bravura performances, one playing the swaggering inmate, toughened by a troubled upbringing and a life in and out of prison, the other a nervous, psychoactive-pill popping newbee, but both reliant on one another and the world they create together. The play takes the form of a frenetic dualogue, with both characters flitting between describing the realities of ‘the concrete block’ and the idyllic land beyond it.

Each half-sketched image, metaphor and allusion is left lingering and gestating in the minds of the audience as they tear through the taut script until they are brought together in the play’s fraught conclusion. Illusions shatter and blood is spilt as actor and audience are left in tears. It’s a startling show. Proof that a good cause needn’t mean bad art.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked.

Little on the Inside is at Summerhall until 24 August.

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