They say comedy is tragedy plus time. And Inside Bitch is funny as hell, buoyed by honest performances by Clean Break Members Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small. But that quippy equation hides real pain, which we get short glimpses of during the performance presented at the Royal Court. It’s a pain that you feel isn’t quite the full story. They are only telling you what they want to tell you.
Conceived by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson, Inside Bitch is billed as a work that challenges the representation of women in prison as seen on screen – bingeable shows like Orange Is The New Black and Locked Up which often peddle stereotypes involving sex, drugs and violence.
The powerhouse four in Inside Bitch take things into their own hands by creating their own show, also titled Inside Bitch. These are powered by their own experiences in prison, where stories involving a paintbrush and a Nescafe jar elevate small, perhaps mundane, details into a heightened, almost cinematic state. The play comprises a loose set of activities that includes playing games, to discussions about what their characters might be, coming up with costumes and merchandise and even reading faux reviews. Its sixty-five minutes move at a fast clip, almost like a frenetic television show, commandeered by assistant director Milli Bhatia, and helped along by assured work of design trio Camilla Clarke (set and costume), Natasha Chivers (lighting) and Ella Wahlström (sound) and video artist Edie Morris. I particularly enjoyed the audience participation (from which emerged the cheeky prison porno, “Behind Bras”), and the inspired use of a sound booth, which amplifies Joseph’s unflinching story involving her children into aching resonance.
Inside Bitch is equally about power and challenging centres of power, including traditional rules of storytelling. Common tropes are rejected, checklist-style (things like “Butch prison dyke running wing” are met with responses like “no one does that” or “oh yeah”). Monologues get intensely personal, only to be humorously reduced into a component that can fit neatly into a traditional story arc. Characters get catchphrases. It is all wonderfully meta.
It feels like a defence mechanism of sorts, as if the actual truth lies hidden deep within, away from us. Which is understandable, except that I realise that it’s the audience they’re defending themselves against. Which makes us… the enemy.
In the playtext for Inside Bitch (a wonderful companion to the work, containing handwritten notes, artistic and meandering reflections, photos and drawings), Oudjar writes “So with doing Inside Bitch, do you want to judge me just because I’ve been to prison? So you’ve got this outlook on me?”. It adds depth to her unwavering gaze onstage. As someone who has come here as a critic, I feel guilt wash over me. I feel incredibly seen, long after I have left the theatre.
I walk away feeling like I love these women. Their reverse striptease as they put on blinged-out turquoise boiler suits which as it turns out, none of them donned in prison. Their natural chemistry and likeable no-BS attitudes. But I equally feel like they’ve only allowed me to see what they want me to see. This is where they hold the power over their captured audience.
It made me realise that stereotypes continue to exist simply because nobody bothered to check how true they were. It’s a bit like rewatching Seinfeld now and realising that all the drama would have been resolved in minutes if they all had mobile phones. The answer becomes obvious if you just stop and think about it for a second.
Inside Bitch, then, is the antidote to kerfuffles that have happened recently in TV and theatre, with conversations around Living With The Lams and All In A Row erupting in close succession. It is about letting people tell their own story, in whatever form they like. It is listening. It is understanding that using the right language matters. That #RepresentationMatters. It might even be admitting that sometimes, you are the enemy. But that doesn’t mean you are beyond redemption.
Inside Bitch is on at Royal Court Theatre until 23rd March. More info and tickets here.