Thursday, April 29, 2010


STRANGEWAYS: An Inside Account

By Stafford, Coghill and Clarke

Contact Theatre, Manchester till 8th May 2010

Review by Brian Gorman

Fink On Theatre first performed this hard-as-nails production of ‘Crying In The Chapel’ ten years ago, and made a triumphant return this week to the Contact Theatre to remind us of just how momentous this moment of Mancunian history was, and continues to be. Highlighting the often appalling treatment of the 1660 men packed three to a cell into a Victorian hellhole built to hold just 972, this is a vital, immensely relevant piece of theatre with much of the dialogue based on the testimony of the inmates who spent 25 days protesting on the rooftop. ‘Crying In The Chapel’, written by Pauline Stafford, Chris Coghill, and Nick Clarke (who also directs) is a sobering piece of social commentary; distressing and uplifting in equal measure. Built in 1868, Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester (better known as the ominous-sounding Strangeways) gradually deteriorated over the decades, until reaching rock bottom in the 1980s. A lethal concoction of fear, hate, misery and depravity that was like a huge poisonous boil, the lancing of which helped to heal the entire UK penal system. Prisons like Strangeways were not concerned with reforming or rehabilitating people; they were simply meant to punish and contain. Repeated claims of casual brutality and humiliation were routinely ignored, all of which led to a group of desperate prisoners first seizing control of the prison chapel, and eventually causing damage of up to £55 million, leaving one man dead and nearly 200 injured.
This was a noisy, angry, testosterone-fueled, and gut-wrenching drama. Before the action on stage began, there were grim-faced warders trudging noisily in hob-nailed boots across the iron walkways above the audience’s heads. Jagged-angled shadows stretched across Sarah Oxley’s expansive, dour, and sparsely decorated set, the centerpiece of which being the prison rooftop with the infamous Strangeways tower projected on to the back wall. Looming phallically above the rioting men, a mocking symbol of immense fertility, and sadistically commenting on the violent orgasmic eruption of the body beneath. Kevin Carroll and Billy Morley’s sound design was integral to the atmosphere, with the sounds of heavy iron doors slamming, prisoners quietly sobbing to themselves in their echoing cells, and jolts of nerve-shattering electric buzzers assaulting our eardrums at irregular intervals. The surreal everyday sounds of Strangeways were nicely balanced against the strains of late 80s/early 90s ‘Madchester’ with the hypnotic and infectious dance beats of the Happy Mondays.
Mancunian everyman Eric (played with convincing street-wise charm by well-known local actor Neil Bell) led us effectively through the story. Popping up at regular intervals contributing relevant facts and figures, and some oft-times shocking real-life anecdotes. A main bone of contention at the time was the irresponsible and wholly inaccurate press coverage. Idle pub gossip and gruesome speculation led to headlines screaming of over a dozen dead and hundreds tortured and mutilated. The impressive Derek Barr (as Paul Taylor) held everything together as the acknowledged and principled leader of the rooftop protesters, and was the lynchpin in a fine ensemble. Vince Atta (as the twinkly-eyed muscleman Alan Lord) shone as the gentle man attempting to negotiate reasonably with the prison governor (a suitably mealy-mouthed Tony Hirst), and getting seven shades kicked out of him for his troubles. Some welcome light relief came from the bystanders observing the action from street level; the formidable Lily Taylor (a delightfully energetic Ruth Evans) and fire-breathing hard case Mrs Murray (Julie Glover).
If there was one weak point, it had to be the script. There was some nice, but brief, build-up to the actual start of the riot, but once we were on the roof it was one long waiting game with little in the way of subplot. The fine acting and sheer physical presence of the performers carried things along smoothly, but I would have liked to have seen a few scenes of the individual characters in their cells before the riot. Perhaps a few snapshots of them in their previous lives, contrasting their life as free men to the embittered and desperate rebels they became.
Nick Clarke’s direction was clear, sharp and admirably unfussy. With most of the action involving several men perched on a rapidly disintegrating rooftop, choreography was everything, and Clarke mobilised his troops like a machine that had been oiled rather well.
Crying In The Chapel is hard-hitting, brutal, and shocking, but ultimately inspiring theatre. The desperate actions of these wretched men resulted in reformation of the entire UK prison system, and taught the authorities a vital lesson; treat people like animals, and they will bite you.

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