Kate Tempest’s second play, Hopelessly Devoted, is a thoughtful, nuanced and sympathetic piece – brought to life by three vibrant, talented women. Cat Simmon’s Chess is inside serving time for killing her abusive husband, her relatively peaceful prison existence thrown into turmoil when her lover, Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo), is up for parole.
This central relationship is at the heart of the production and it’s beautifully played: spiky, naturalistic, tender and occasionally fraught, it recognises that for all the privations of prison, the system gives their lives a simplicity the outside world can never offer. Ikumelo frets about how she will cope with being reunited from her estranged children, jokes about committing a crime to get back inside, while Chess, inevitably left behind to serve her longer sentence, retreats into isolation and hostility, feeling the only way to let her partner move on is to cut her loose, whether she likes it or not.
Into this highly charged situation comes music producer Silva (Michelle Gayle), an ex-addict keen to make amends for her sins, who runs a music workshop programme for inmates and sees in Chess’ music a natural talent and gift for self-expression that is worth nurturing, even if Chess herself is dubious.
Directors James Grieve and Stef O’Driscoll keep this short piece tight and fluid but gracefully paced, the rare quiet moments given ample time to breathe (the women dancing a chess game in perfect, smiling synchronicity, then Chess, alone and heartbroken, retracing their steps, is particularly moving). The songs – by Tempest and Dan Carey – feel authentic without being especially memorable, and all three women are in fine voice, with Simmons in particular having a jagged, nervous energy that never fails to hold the attention. Joanna Scotcher’s design is stylishly sparse, though this performance was slightly hampered by sound issues.
Having been wowed by Tempest’s self-performed piece Brand New Ancients, I was curious to see how the work of such an individual voice would fare in the hands of others, but the piece proves that she’s an equally impressive wordsmith even when not performing her own material, especially when gifted with such a strong cast. That said, the narrative itself is fairly slight – will Chess find the strength to face her demons and do the music programme’s graduation performance, finally bringing her talent out into the light, as well as reach out to the daughter she left behind, the one who she killed to protect? There are no prizes for guessing. But what makes the piece such a pleasure is the route it takes to get there.
But despite its relatively simplistic storyline, there are no clichés here – this is not a Prisoner Cell Block H / Bad Girls portrayal of women in prison. Chess’ life might be played out against a background clamour of shouting inmates but there are no sadistic warders, no evil Mrs Big with whom to contend; the problems facing Chess and Serena are far more prosaic and personal. The piece also avoids any overt politicisation – we are left to ponder for ourselves the justice of locking up a woman for years for killing a violent man, without the show passing comment on the severity of her sentence.
Pleasingly, too, the women are not played as victims: they are sharp and funny and self-aware, even as they fall into the traps they set themselves. This always feels like a story about people, not issues, and is all the stronger for it. But there are no easy answers, either, no pat solutions. Whatever her choices, Chess will remain in prison as her soul mate moves on with life outside; reconciled or not with her daughter, they will remain apart, and no matter how good her music, it won’t buy her an early release. Perhaps, suggests Tempest, there is a particular kind of heroism in doing something anyway when you know that no matter how brave your actions, you can only reap small rewards.