This Wide Night arrives back at Soho with a cluster of good reasons to go and see it. Since it was first shown there in the summer of last year writer Chloe Moss has garnered the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the play. Moreover, theatre company Clean Break achieved a sell-out run just last month with their production of It Felt Empty at the Arcola Theatre.
Clean Break are known for producing plays that dramatise women’s experiences of crime and punishment. They also provide training and specialist support for the rehabilitation of women offenders and it is life after prison in the wide world outside which is the subject of this play.
When she is released from prison Lorraine seeks out former cellmate Marie who is now living alone in a tatty bedsit. Lorraine insists that she has just popped in to check that Marie is alright, but she does have her bag with her. At first Marie is hostile, Lorraine apologetic and they circle each other warily. But after some awkward moments Marie tells Lorraine she can stay just for that night.
Over the following months Lorraine stays on, sharing the broken sofa bed and watching the telly with Marie. But life on the outside is not the same as life in prison. Work is hard to come by and their old lives pull them in different directions.
Days follow days and on the surface not much really happens. Pizzas are eaten and beers drunk as they play games, argue and talk about going away. They find each other irritating but necessary in the same way that members of a family do. For each is all the the family the other has, bound together as they are by their awkward friendship. So for all Marie’s insistence that she wants Lorraine to leave they gradually grow closer. Each time Lorraine walks out the door Marie waits for her to come back. At long last they really begin to trust each other. Tough Marie breaks down in Lorraine’s arms crying “I want my Mum” and optimist Lorraine has to admit that her son has refused to see her any more.
The play is a tender portrayal of a relationship between two vulnerable women. Credit for this must go in part to director Lucy Morrison for sensitively revealing its fragility. But Maureen Beattie as Lorraine and Zawe Ashton as Marie are outstanding too in their delicate and truthful performances. Designer Chloe Lamford brings Marie’s bedsit to life with its tired furniture and small personal touches, while Becky Smith's soundscape enhances the women’s sense of confinement and dependence on each other.
This Wide Night shows what it might mean to be freed from prison only to discover that what matters most is something that you have brought from prison itself. So if it has a message it is that freedom is what you make it. In the end this is a play about survival both of a friendship and of Lorraine and Marie themselves.
- Louise Gooding
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from August 2008, and this production's original run at the Soho Theatre (casting has since changed)
The ‘re-birth’ of prisoners into society after an extended period of incarceration is an alienating and, one would imagine, often terrifying experience. And in Chloe Moss’ This Wide Night for Clean Break theatre company (who specialise in working with women affected by the criminal justice system), it provides the basis for a compelling evening of theatre, packed with humour and poignancy in equal measure.
Lorraine, a middle-aged, newly released ex-con, heads straight to the one person she can trust on the outside - fellow former jailbird Marie. But the women soon find themselves stuck in a new kind of confinement - no cell this time, only Marie’s bedsit - and find that the pressures of their new-found freedom exert unanticipated strains on their relationship. Lorraine’s primary mission is to reunite with her son, who was taken away prior to her conviction. Marie meanwhile finds herself slipping into a life of prostitution, her tough exterior barely masking her deep-set unhappiness and sense of failure. She finds Lorraine’s presence a nuisance, both a reminder of her past and an unwanted addition to her already cramped domestic arrangement, but her almost childlike reliance on her becomes increasingly obvious as she reaches breaking point.
As Lorraine and Marie, Jan Pearson and Cathy Owen spar together perfectly. Pearson’s use of profanity as punctuation is a particular treat, while Owen’s raw vulnerability as Marie is moving and compulsive. Director Lucy Morrison injects several moments of arresting stillness and ensures the trauma is counterbalanced with many deft touches of physical comedy, all the while leaving Moss’s superbly-crafted dialogue plenty of room to breathe. Special mention must also go to designer Chloe Lamford, who cleverly draws out the cell-like qualities of the bedsit setting and handles the use of water with precision.
There is often a fear when watching ‘issue-based’ drama that the message will drown the drama, but never is this the case in This Wide Night. It certainly raises questions about the failure of society to re-accept those it has previously condemned, yet also touches more universally on the unique bond formed between those multitudes of people who find everyday society an alien environment.
Good two-handers are a real treat - and this is one of the best I’ve seen in a long while.