Alice Birch’s [BLANK] At Donmar Warehouse Weakly Cries For Women’s Prison Reform

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Alice Birch’s [BLANK] At Donmar Warehouse Weakly Cries For Women’s Prison Reform

This challenging, chaotic play leaves too much to the imagination.

It’s easy to conjure an image of what a female prisoner looks like. Thanks to books, film and binge-worthy TV shows, these women are often portrayed as ‘sexy’, and ‘one of the lads’ but with a fluid sexual preference. Onstage, Alice Birch hopes to smash these stereotypes in her play [BLANK], but, sadly, it misses the mark.

In Birch’s full script for [BLANK], there are 100 different scenes for directors to pick and choose from to form their very own creative jigsaw puzzle. Every scene is unique, but they are all inspired by Birch’s experience with women who have been affected, and — in ways — betrayed, by the justice system.

For her run at Donmar Warehouse, director Maria Aberg has chosen 30 scenes from Birch’s do-it-yourself text. This interpretation marks 40 years since two female prisoners — and cast members — Shona Babayemi and Lucy Edkins formed theatre company, Clean Break.

Aberg’s version sees us follow the stories of a young drug addict breaking into her mother’s home for money, a lamenting mother attempting to explain why she stabbed her children to death, an abused girlfriend running from a man that will kill her, and a cocaine-chugging middle-class dinner party featuring the daughter of a criminal.

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The play, quite rightly, is chaotic. As a contrast, the set is boxy, stark and multi-faceted. It’s clinical and bare, like a prison. As one scene plays directly in front of the audience, there is a woman with a crying baby upstairs – while a film plays of another girl we’ve never met on a different level. It’s difficult to pay attention, your eyes dart over snippets of another vignette that you’re not made the voyeur of.

Like the shards of broken glass on the stage from a female addict breaking into her mother’s home, the play is, at times, sharp – but the stories are just that; shards. There’s nothing solid to the play, and like the mess on the floor, it crumbles.

As a woman, I really wanted this play to work out. The topics in question were uncomfortable, ones that aren’t given much airtime – or in this case, stage time. But with middle-aged cocaine chuggers shouting over one another for up to 45 minutes, the play missed the mark by becoming farcical. And at times, boring. There wasn’t a linear, clear story, or an overall theme – and it certainly wasn’t obvious that we were following the lives of women touched by the justice system. It was a jumble sale of stories that all had a beginning, middle and end in their own right, but together had no purpose.

As the seats around me gradually emptied towards the close of the show, it was sadly clear that the audience weren’t going to get the end they desperately wanted – one for a story that never truly began, or had meaning. It is a true pleasure to be able to see the reformative action and power that theatre can have on women with dark pasts. But in the end, [BLANK] left me squirming in my seat with its challenging portrayal of the betrayal of women, especially those at their most vulnerable – but for all the wrong reasons.

[BLANK] runs at Donmar Warehouse until 30 November.

Words by Emmie Harrison-West