Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
As true stories go, the plot of Cell Outs is a remarkable one. Written and performed by Harriet Troup and Ella Church and directed by Grace Church, it’s the tale of two naïve drama school graduates who enlist on a new scheme that promises to allow them to bring their social justice dreams to light in the prison system. Sounds exciting, right? They eagerly sign up and, after just six weeks of basic training, they find themselves enrolled as… prison warders, working in two adjoining gaols. Troup is based in a male prison (delicately titled HM Prick for the purposes of this drama) while Church works at the women’s prison (HM Pussy).
They quickly learn that opportunities to use their drama skills are nonexistent. Instead, they must negotiate the endless litany of drug dealing, scrapping, tongue lashings and suicides that are part and parcel of everyday prison life. At first, they’re appalled by what they witness but, as the days roll inexorably by, they become increasingly hardened to the horrors, inured to the misery around them and in serious danger of becoming everything they dislike about the system.
Troup and Church are engaging performers and they attack their roles with gusto. We are presented with a series of sketches chronicling their descent into the abyss, interspersed with voice recordings from inmates and fellow workers. They also perform occasional musical interludes, which – it must be said – vary in quality. A clever parody of ‘Doe, a Deer,’ utilising prison vernacular is a particular highlight, but some of the rap-inflected offerings feel more generic.
If there’s a major issue here, it’s the play’s story arc, which starts bleak and funny and, without really developing, soon becomes just plain bleak. Furthermore, many of the major dramatic occurrences later in the drama are told rather than shown; for the true tragedy to strike home, we need to see a climactic incident played out before our eyes, rather than just hear about it.
Cell Outs is a unique story with a powerful central message, but it’s a message that occasionally feels a little obfuscated in its delivery.