“Punish me or pray for me. Lock me up or look away. I’m not going anywhere.”
Charged is a theatrical experience by the Clean Break company at the Soho Theatre which brings six female playwrights together to create six half-hour dramas about women in the criminal justice system and the myriad ways in which they can be affected. Clean Break have been working in the arenas of theatre and education for over thirty years with women affected in all sorts of ways to try and achieve both personal and political change and is the only UK theatre company working with these women.
A company of eleven actresses and three directors are spread over three performance areas in the Soho Theatre building, the main auditorium, the restaurant downstairs and the attic-like studio on the top floor. The six plays have been split into two separate sequences of three plays, Charged 1 and Charged 2 which can be seen independently of each other or together, but even then, the audience is divided into two upon arrival and so experience different journeys through the material. Mini-reviews of each of the plays can be read by clicking on the links in their titles, what follows is more of an overview of the whole experience.
Charged 1 features Dream Pill by Rebecca Prichard, Fatal Light by Chloë Moss and Taken by Winsome Pinnock covering issues like child sex trafficking, mothers separated from their children whilst in prison, insufficient mental health diagnoses and the effects of drug addiction on families. Consequently, it is probably the harder viewing of the two, with an intensity of uncomfortable emotion starting off in the harrowing Dream Pill which still haunts me now, moving to the painful enforced separation of mother and child in Fatal Light and the shattered family connections of Taken.
Charged 2, the second sequence was unfortunately marked by the worst experience I had and also the best play of the entire two sets, quite the contrast. Dancing Bears by Sam Holcroft, That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Doris Day by EV Crowe are the plays covering gang violence, older women’s experience in prison and the struggle of modern women to cope in the macho world of the police force respectively. Despite massive issues with the staging of Dancing Bears which meant I heard barely a word of it, this was the better of the two halves and if you only attend one then this should be it, for it contains two of the more interestingly directed pieces and the best written one in Lenkiewicz’s That Almost Unnameable Lust.
Altogether as a six play epic, the work is mightily impressive, the efforts of the ensemble are outstanding and you are struck by a genuine sense of how important these issues really are, and how little they are explored with any depth normally. Themes are recur or at least that resonated the most with me included the overbearing sense of loss for so many of these women, the troubling lack of comprehension of mental health issues that drive women to desperate acts, the disturbing prevalence of self-harm in prisons and the desperate futility of life sentences for victims of domestic violence.
Separately, if truth be told, the two sets are a tad underwhelming as there is sometimes not quite enough directorial innovation to overcome the necessary limitations of 30 minute plays and generally speaking, there is a lack of the unifying thread to round off the whole shebang. Both evenings just fizzle out in one of the smaller working spaces and whilst this is clearly a logistics issue, it would have been nice to have been able to applaud the whole company at some point and finish with a bigger flourish or at least with the audience altogether.
That is not to undermine the impact of what is being achieved here by Clean Break and their collaboration with the Soho Theatre team, in terms of promoting female playwrights, enabling female theatre-makers and giving a much needed substantial voice to the experiences of women everywhere. This is rarely easy theatre-going, but then that is kind of the point.