Josie Cray reviews a new production from Papertrail that fuses food, theatre, and incarceration, in A Night in the Clink.
Food brings people together. From conversations around the dinner table recounting the day to cosy meals with loved ones in restaurants, food and meal times are intimate on a number of levels. Food itself restores. It reminds us of other’s cooking. It fills us up and makes us content. A good meal—a great meal—remains on our lips long after the final bite as we recommend places to friends, food to family, imploring those around us to visit this place or that for the best meal we’ve had. One such place is the Clink.
A stylish, cosy restaurant in the centre of the capital city, the Clink is an initiative training prisoner in the final stages of their sentence with the aim to reduce reoffending whilst instilling core values of compassion and confidence in inmates facing the looming prospect of returning to the world outside of prison walls.
It’s in the small restaurant that the lives of these prisoners come to life in Papertrail’s production A Night in the Clink. A three-man show which draws upon the real lives and stories from prisoners they have worked alongside, A Night in the Clink combines location, personal stories, and food to create an intimate and compassionate production which captures the often-forgotten human side of offenders and shows reform is much more than just training prisoners how to cook a nice meal.
The play is served up by three characters in prison for their own reasons and brought together by the opportunities provided by the Clink. Justin (played by Oliver Wood), known around the Clink as ‘percolator’ because he makes the best coffee, is a waiter with the weight of past choices heavy on his shoulders. The end of his sentence is near and for the duration of the meal we are sharing his excitement as the prospects of a barista job that could await him on the ‘outside’. With him is Ricky (played by Aled ap Steffan), a young prisoner previously with a point to prove around prison. His time at the Clink has him thinking about time and change, and how he can make a change by learning skills and developing confidence during his time in the restaurant.
In times of anxiety, as Ricky works through emotions connected to his mamgu and his trial, Welsh and English become mixed firmly placing this night in Wales. Behind the counter, wielding kitchen knives and a chef’s hat, is Cardiff local, Marky (played by Siôn Pritchard). Hot-headed, tattooed, Cardiff City supporter waiting for the arrival of his partner and daughter for a meal on his birthday, we see how his time in the restaurant has made him hopeful for a future he can share with his daughter—the one person who voiced her pride at her father’s position in the Clink. The stories from each prisoner reveals snippets of life in prison: the desire to finish their sentence conflicting with the anxiety about the outside world, change and the inevitability of time passing, and how choices make us human—something we all remain no matter what title or label is placed upon us for our decisions.
Through the course of the night, diners are reminded that the restaurant is a space between: between prison and freedom, between inside and out, between hopelessness and dreams. A door is all that separates inmates from the city centre; a glass door stands between the men and the world they see through it. Marky recounts the pain of seeing his partner and daughter leave the restaurant while he remains behind the glass waving. His family move forward while he appears stuck watching the outside world go by. Each man has contemplated walking out the door, but all know they wouldn’t get very far. And the longer they think about the ‘outside’ the more it looms over them with the ability to shock them, to place them in a world they are out of step with.
The Clink is a step toward handling this anxiety with permeable boundaries between the prison and outside. The door can open, the phone rings with requests for reservations, diners come and go; outside comes into the prison via the Clink and gives prisoners a chance to interact with a world previously cut off from them. And with the outside comes the acknowledgement that time is passing; life keeps moving forward. No more evident and harrowing is this than in Ricky’s story.
Although cocky, Ricky had been supported by his mamgu throughout his life and all through the trial. After her first visit to see Ricky in prison, Ricky is hounded by other inmates with grotesque remarks. He chooses to take his frustration out on her, telling her to never visit him. Yet she persists in letting him know she is there until she is not. Weekly letters go unanswered by Ricky until no more letters arrive and he is informed his mamgu has passed away. Time moves on and Ricky can’t get back the time he could’ve spent with his mamgu. In moments like this, where Ricky is confronted with a past he can’t change but wishes to, he slips between Welsh and English, a straddling of identities before prison and now, emphasising the confusion and anxiety towards change he has no control over, and Aled ap Steffan uses both languages effortlessly throughout with Ricky’s need to find words in either language to explain himself.
But time and change are not always depicted as negative in the production. The Clink itself is a site where time and change hope to produce a positive outcome. Justin, Ricky, and Marky spend time learning and developing skills that will help them in the future. They change as they learn, supported by those around them and the kitchen family. A Night in the Clink challenges the idea that time stands still in prison, that inmates are out of step with the modern world, unchanged. The Clink is a space that exhibits change in both those inside and out, and how time can be harnessed to reform those inside.
Although a three-man show, the presence of women is felt throughout. From Ricky’s mamgu to Marky’s daughter Ellie, women are found to impact the men’s lives in a variety of ways. In a beautiful moment portrayed with real power by Siôn Pritchard, Marky describes the surprise he had at having to serve his partner and daughter. The mix of emotions—shame, pride, embarrassment—are all captured by Pritchard. Marky is a proud man who initially sees waiting beneath him, and the thought of his daughter seeing her father in such a position makes his blood boil. He makes it through the night and at the end his daughter performs an act that sees Marky re-evaluate his time working in the Clink. As they leave, Marky describes how Ellie places her pocket money in his hand as tip and tell her dad how she is proud of him. Marky informs us that he’s never been told he’s made anyone proud and makes a promise to himself to keep make Ellie proud. Pritchard handles this moment with emotional delicacy whilst still capturing the hopes and dreams of the prisoners as Marky begins to ramble on to others in the kitchen how he’s going to work his way up and open his own place once he does his time. Ellie becomes her father’s inspiration.
All three inmates tell us of Jenny, A.K.A Morticia, who runs the restaurant and keeps inmates in line. A haunting figure who looms over the prisoners and sees everything, Jenny also treats the inmates with compassion and care. She supports their efforts and instils confidence in all three. Her presence is especially felt as Marky recounts his encounter with an elderly woman who asked him “why are you in here?” Confused, Marky explains he is helping to serve people dinner, however it becomes apparent the elderly woman is wanting to know what crime Marky committed, situating him as something ‘other’; he is no more than his crime to this woman. Jenny is all too aware of this and informs all the prisoners that they have control over what they want to tell people, that they have control over their life even if it seems they are being written off by a society which cannot see beyond a crime. What the stories of Jenny and Ellie do is remind us that although prisoners serving time these men are still human.
No more is this humanness more evident than in Oliver Wood’s performance of Justin who informs us that we are defined by choices, and for him there are two choices in his life that have defined him. Wood captures the excitement of Justin’s potential job prospects, the hopes for a future he can control, and the shame he has around his choices which landed him in prison. The setting of the Clink reinforces that complexity of these characters and how on a basic level we are all humans who can make choices—some good, some bad. The play removes the contentious binary of good and bad through the intricate layers of each character and their stories. Right and wrong are reflected upon but as a way to show how change, doing time, can provide reform; they become fluid, unfixed as the inmates grow and change through the opportunities provided by the Clink.
Food, as mentioned, brings people together. It also, in the case of A Night in the Clink, draws the play together. Three delicious courses, three stories, three men using food as a way to move forward, to dream. Overall, the play is a delicate balance between past, present, and future which is served wonderfully by a fantastic cast. You now have a choice: will you spend a night in the Clink?
A Night in the Clink created by Papertrail in partnership with Sherman Theatre runs until 25th of September.
(Image credits: Kirsten McTernan)
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Josie Cray is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.