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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Rex Obano (See Interviews, 24 Jan 2010) was working at HMP Wandsworth when he started writing Slaves, a no holds barred depiction of a toxic prison system which turns all involved into slaves.

Bright spark prison officer Chris Jackson, whose only previous experience has been behind a desk but who is being groomed for the fast-track to a governorship, thinks he knows it all when he arrives at his new post on a lifers' wing. He quickly finds out however that it's not only his superiors and other officers who don't trust him; the prisoners also suspect his motives and one, Jenks, even poses a physical threat to him and his family.

The officers' main focus is maintaining the status quo. The prisoners too seem to know where they are with the disciplinarian tactics of overtly racist officer White and his colleagues, and with the pecking order among the inmates.

Director Nadia Latif has brought to life an astonishing work that is far from the black and white presentation it first appears. In fact, nothing is as it seems. No-one is telling the truth, either to each other or to themselves, as they all engage in a struggle for survival, love and freedom. It's this conflict in the various relationships that keeps us spinning as a glimpse of a truth is revealed, only to disappear beneath the surface once more.

Lorna Ritchie’s design is minimal - just a few chairs and tables, and a couple of metal structures that delineate cells, offices and flats - which is all to the good as there is nothing to detract from the power of the words and the performance. And what convincing performances they are. Paul Bentall is particularly strong as prison officer White, a man reaching the end of his career who pays lip service to the newly introduced equality and diversity policies imposed from above. Cornell S John brilliantly portrays Reuben, the patriarch of the wing, before glimpses of his true personality are gradually revealed. Adetomiwa Edun's Jackson is convincingly superior until gradually drawn into the corruption of the system.

There are flaws - firm editing would have removed a couple of superfluous scenes - but it's well worth the effort of sticking with it to experience a deeply affecting piece about life on the inside.

- Carole Gordon


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