There’s been something of the warrior about Kate Tempest from the get go. A properly modest warrior, more bleeding than bloody: a voice for the wounded that’s as strong in its rage as it is yielding in its egoless empathy. Compared to the brawny balladeering of 2012’s Brand New Ancients, her first play, Wasted, was a conventional beast. A ‘my fucked up mates’ play, more or less, though a particularly vibrant and insightful one, that wormed it’s way into MDMA-laise of your mid-20’s on the back of Tempest’s irrepressible rhythms.
Hopelessly Devoted is fiercer and more ambitious, a story about the stress-testing of love, creativity and hope that prison inflicts. The setup is a hair’s breadth from Alice Birch’s Little on the Inside that premiered earlier this year at the Almeida Festival, with two women, two cellmates, nurturing a bolthole for themselves in their imaginations. Here it’s music that provides the harbour, as brittle Chess (Amanda Wilkin) leads her friend Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo) in soaring duets that provide emotional sustenance and pricks of daylight into their misery. Both women are offered a kind of escape, Chess through music workshops with flunked producer Silver (Martina Laird), Serena with probation and release.
The women are drawn with all the care, warmth, humour and ear that you’ve come to expect from gallumphingly talented Tempest, and her writing sketches their prison world around them in effectively dim, institutional shades. They pace their cells in agitated distraction and fall into synchronised patterns of behaviour that are at once tragic and companionable. Their love is infantilised by their situation.
Once the plot is moving and Chess’s talents improve things get a little hackneyed. The relationship between Chess and Silver begins to resemble a behind bars mash up of Good Will Hunting and Billy Elliot, but Tempest has aimed for inspirational and, on those terms, she smashes it. It helps that the songs she has co-written for Chess are so convincing, and Wilkin’s voice so skin-pricklingly good.
The staging, with video cameras positioned in the wings and a live drum machine that thuds out the beats is unshowily evocative of the lack of privacy the women experience, as well as holding a cheeky glimmer of X Factor, of the escapism of celebrity. However familiar the setup, the scenes in which Chess taps out her first backing track and lets her voice climb are powerfully managed.
Tempest’s work is perpetually inclined towards social justice, it strives to level playing fields and include the excluded and forgotten. Hopelessly Devoted speaks clearly and passionately about the greatest evil in these women’s lives: inequality. Prison makes their limited universe of opportunities and status explicit, but it quickly becomes clear that barriers of class, sex, race and expectation have ensured that, shackled or otherwise, they’re essentially prisoners of their situation. That Tempest has had to wield a slightly Hallmark sentiment, a montage-able movie-of-the-weekness, to pry some hope out of this very real scenario is surely just a testament to its bleakness.
Read the Exeunt interview with Kate Tempest