It’s my first time in a theatre for 17 months, and I may never have another visit for which it is so hard to separate the content of the show from the circumstances in which I’m seeing it. So it feels appropriate that this one-woman play – part of Sheffield Theatres’ Together Season Festival, which includes 13 shows from local artists, curated by a panel including audience members – is a story about prisons, of both the literal and figurative kind.
The lockdowns of the last year have been draining, for some people unbearably so; I’m sure quite a few folk have had the thought that the experience has given them an idea of what it must be like being incarcerated. This monologue, told by prison guard Nicole (Eve Cowley, who co-wrote the play alongside director Elin Schofield) serves as a reminder that if that’s true in some ways, it really isn’t in others.
Nicole is a funny, engaging and multifaceted character, convincingly realised in the script and brought to life brilliantly by Cowley. We hear about how the satisfaction and pride in her work, and ability to connect with the prisoners, contrasts with her unimpressive colleagues, and her disappointing home life with her tedious estate agent boyfriend – towards whom she occasionally entertains murderous fantasies. Nicole’s descriptions of how she’d like to apply a range of kitchen implements to the unsuspecting boyf are among the most riveting moments, and also play a role in subtle misdirections in the story.
Nicole also effectively conjures the cast of the prison, including her obnoxious supervisor Andrew, a posh convicted woman nicknamed Camilla Parker-Bowles, and the mysterious Amina, famous for never having spoken to anyone since arriving in prison. There’s an incident part way through the story involving one of the prisoners that causes Nicole’s life to unravel, leading to drastic action – and consequences.
I found the final section of the play a little abrupt, but in a way that’s a credit to Cowley and Schofield. There were so many themes touched on effectively by this script – bullying, abuse, violence, and the many ways in which people can be trapped by circumstances – and there is scope for some of these to be delved into more deeply. I could easily have enjoyed another 20 minutes or so of Cowley’s performance too, beyond the 55 minute running time. That said, the ending – ripping one of the most iconic motifs in pop culture – is a total treat.
With its brilliant full thrust stage, the Crucible always makes audiences more acutely aware they’re in a theatre than at most other large venues. That has never been the case more for me than in watching Screwdriver, where I was sat on one side of the auditorium and had the sight, on the other side of the stage, of masked audience members, broken into their bubbles of two or three, spaced out to meet physical distancing rules with every other row empty. Against this backdrop, this single performer on the large, sparse stage (a single chair the only scenery) had an amazing presence. I was filled with gratitude and admiration for the people willing and able to learn an hour-long monologue by heart and get on stage in front of hundreds of people, when the last year has shown how precarious life can be in theatre. I can’t wait for more of it.
Screwdriver ran as part of the Sheffield Theatre’s Together Season Festival, between 24 May and 5 June.