The Cell, written by Michael Crowley, confounds expectations in a number of ways. It opens in a prison cell in which a hostage situation has developed. Contrary to the norm Prison Officer Scully (Paul Regan) has taken convict Kelly (David Barlow) hostage. Scully is trying to secure closure for the family of a prisoner who was bullied into suicide. But under the twisted logic of the prison system (and the wider society it represents) Scully finds he needs the help of Kelly just to survive and his hoped for redemption seems a lost cause.
Crowley describes a reformatory system that is not so much broken as gone into reverse. The prisoners are in control – able to influence events outside of gaol using mobile phones acquired from corrupt officers. Crowley continues to surprise with the tone of his play. With the unflinchingly bleak outlook you’d expect it to be dour but instead there are excellent comic situations and jokes. Having been on a hostage negotiation course Scully can describe the procedures that will be followed but is unable to guess the outcome as he failed the course.
Although the circumstances in the show seem like an Alice in Wonderland world, Ron Meadows anchors the play in reality. Dramatic developments are timed perfectly and Emma Heron’s fight scenes are frighteningly true to life. Meadows punctures growing tension with comic touches such as Kelly casually producing a mobile phone from inside a shower gel.
Barlow gives a disturbingly accurate portrayal of Kelly with the arrogance of someone who knows that his view of the world has been confirmed as accurate. He is beyond redemption and has no concept of a life outside of crime. Even though work would be a relief from the boredom of incarceration he regards any effort as pointless. Regan, on the other hand, represents the audience with the realistically bewildered attitude of someone gradually losing his grip as his values turn out to be false.
The final surprise of The Cell is that such a potentially depressing play could be so very entertaining.