Every now and then, a piece of theatre reminds you of the electrifying power of just a few people in a room sharing tales. Sound and light and visual virtuosity are all brilliant, but sometimes all you need is a story. Alice Birch’s new play for Clean Break is one such piece of theatre.
Written for a patch of grass at Latitude and now performed on the pristine artificial lawn of the Almeida’s foyer – colourfully decked out for the summer festival – Little on the inside is perfectly at home with its own minimalism. Small but muscular, Birch’s play delicately traces the intense friendship between two female prisoners, played with relentless and sometimes punishing energy by Simone James and Susan Wokoma. James’ inmate thrashes and swears her way through prison life, kicking at the system and screaming into the unbearable silence, while Wokoma withdraws into her own private escape. Eventually, in an act of disarming trust, she brings her cellmate with her.
The friendship that blossoms between these two women in the peaceful scrap of green they hold together in their minds is loving, fierce and uncompromisingly complex. There’s an extraordinary chemistry between the two actresses, as Wokoma’s captivating stillness balances the fiery passion of James, cooling her rage in the tranquil waters of the secret world she has created. But, unsurprisingly in this environment, it’s not all roses. For all that it makes the heart leap, director Lucy Morrison’s production also sears like acid. Like this tender relationship in the hardest of environments, Birch’s play is both beautiful and bruising – a bloom wrapped in barbed wire.
In the mouths of Wokoma and James, Birch’s exquisite text loops and repeats, jumps and intersects, builds to a furious, fast-paced frenzy before sinking once more into calm. There is a musical quality to the arrangement of the dialogue, married with a structure that suggests the jittery pattern of thoughts. At times, particularly when describing the mental oasis that surrounds Birch’s characters, the language is also hypnotically lyrical. Words conjure for us as well as for these two women; we are transported from the Almeida’s well-appointed foyer to the concrete and metal of the prison and to the idyllic imaginary retreat that these prisoners have constructed for themselves within it.
But this is an idyll just waiting to be broken. Aside from stripping away all the theatrical supports that Little on the inside does so well without, the setting works on the piece in another way. Here, in this space that is not quite a theatre and not quite something else, dreams are cupped like water – all too prone to slipping through one’s fingers. The implicit threat of separation that frames the delicate friendship on stage is reflected in the fragile nature of the playing space, a temporary auditorium briefly trespassing on alien territory. We might be momentarily enchanted by the promise of love in the midst of despair, but we know the spell can’t last.