Crying in the Chapel is a shamelessly manipulative piece of work. Although it moves the audience with the power of the performances and the skill of the direction, the arguments articulated are so blatantly one-sided as to almost insult your intelligence and provoke a reaction contrary to the one intended.
Transcript theatre often arises as the author is so moved by an unjust event that he/she uses dramatised transcripts of interviews to increase awareness. In this case, however, writers Pauline Stafford, Chris Coghill and director Nick Clarke have based the play upon interviews with only the prisoners who took over Strangeways gaol and staged a rooftop protest lasting some weeks, which resulted in reforms being made to the prison system.
It is debatable whether the writers were wise to put such faith in people who not only have a vested interest in telling the story from a single point of view.Some key elements of the story remain obscure including the actual cause of the riots. It is suggested that both the prisoners and the prison guards were bored and just fancied a fight but it is also possible that the motive was a desire to commit violence towards the sexual offenders who were segregated for their own safety.
But then the script makes clear that this was not the fault of the rioters but rather Margaret Thatcher whose policy of closing secure care homes under the Care in the Community initiative left those people incarcerated in prisons.
The script is a peculiar mixture of a Sociology textbook and a bad B Movie. It combines dry descriptions with unconvincing dialogue. Although the media are condemned for making mountains out of molehills, the authors are coy about the offences committed by the rioters. It is as if they want to define the characters by the conditions of the prison rather than the events that resulted in them being convicted.
There is not a single character in the play with any redeeming qualities. It is just as well, therefore, that the 17 strong cast are so very good. They take on a range of roles from rioters to prison guards but the play is dominated by a towering performance from Derek Barr who by sheer talent and physical presence makes you forget that much of what he is saying does not make a lot of sense.
The real success of the evening is the stunning direction by Nick Clarke. He puts the audience right in the middle of the violence. There is a tense atmosphere even before the play starts thanks to a prison guard audibly patrolling overhead. The rioters are situated within the audience so that their outbursts and reactions are deeply intimidating. Even when Clarke allows the pace to slow the tension does not evaporate. The black and white photographs of the actual event on display outside the theatre are captured in silent tableaux on-stage with Kevin Carroll and Bill Morley’s creepy background music giving the scenes the uneasy feel of a fever dream.
Fine acting and excellent direction are not really enough to make you forget that you have been manipulated and by the end of the evening the audience might end up feeling used.