The UK is having something of an Alexis Michalik moment right now, with two of the award-winning French playwright's pieces hitting major UK stages for the first time in the last couple of months. The man certainly seems to have a favourite type, with both plays at their hearts meta-theatrical romps that celebrate the redemptive power of performance and the act of putting something on stage.
Intra Muros opens with a director, Richard, knowingly played by the production's director Ché Walker, as he prepares to run a drama class in a Norwich-based maximum security prison. There are two in-mates taking part – the motormouth Kevin (Declan Perring) and the stoically silent Angel (Victor Gardener), as well as young social worker Alice (Summer Strallen) and Richard's colleague and ex-wife Jane (Emma Pallant). As the class continues the story flashes back and forward in time to reveal more about Kevin, Angel and Alice, tying their stories together in a knotty and somewhat implausible conclusion.
Michalik's treatment of the penal system is more of a glib way to facilitate a domestic drama than a way to offer a genuine insight into those incarcerated in the UK, and it often lacks the important sensitivity or care found in plays like Luke Barnes' recent Jumper Factory. Even the meta-theatrical framing ends up superfluous as the story bundles through a panoply of plot twists and eyebrow-raising reveals. Sometimes it's like watching a whole week's worth of soaps in a single 90-minute sitting.
There is some stand-out work done by the whole cast who multi-role through each of the flashbacks, as well as by on-stage musician and DJ Rio Kai, who scores every scene with a variety of instruments and sounds. Strallen, who becomes the beating emotional heart of the play, performs incredibly well, as does Pallant in a role begging for more significance. Designer PJ McEvoy keeps the set largely empty, appropriately playing up to the "drama class" vibes.
The flawed story is carried, therefore, by its solid cast and Walker's breezy direction, never dwelling too long on the more ludicrous plot beats involved. But for all its inventiveness Michalik's play is frequently unable to stand up to scrutiny, under-serving both its setting and its form.