Garrick Theatre, London WC2
Opened 12 September, 2007

Apparently the 1999-2006 TV series that spawned this musical began as a relatively gritty drama about conditions in a fictional women's prison, before successive seasons ratcheted up the camp and the melodrama. Well, there's no sign of grit here, but it's chock-full of the other stuff.

All the personality types and plot turns are familiar to those of us hooked on the Australian small-screen offering Prisoner: Cell Block H 20 years ago. We see the principled tough con, the tarts with hearts, the main-chance dope-peddlers, the in-control gang boss's wife, the geriatric chancer and so on; and, on the staff, the corrupt (and rapist) senior warder, his time-serving minion, the young innocent who learns fast, and the noble crusader. The hook here is that principled tough con and noble crusader, both women, fall for each other. Gosh. Curiously, in a press-night full of audience whoops and guffaws, there was almost total silence for the lesbian kiss, which is every bit as hokey as the rest of the evening. Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus (who wrote the series) supply a book that is perky and irreverent, but which often makes Cell Block H look like Solzhenitsyn; Kath Gotts' songs do the job, and get closer to memorableness (though still without attaining it) than much sub-Sondheim relationship-oriented songsmithery.

On these terms, the show would be worth around two and a half stars, and one might understand the enthusiasm with which it was reviewed on its premiere in Leeds last year. But the production machine is not satisfied with these terms. Instead, it sings the praises of the series – and, by implication, this show – for allegedly telling it like it is and provoking major reform. The programme is stuffed with testimonies from a professor of criminology, the director of the Prison Reform Trust and, disgustingly, a campaigner who is no longer alive to offer any view on the present show. Well, let it be judged by the standards it has chosen for itself. The series may have, as Prof. David Wilson claims, astutely mixed entertainment with message; this stage musical neither achieves nor even attempts any such blend. It insults its audience by pretending that we might buy such self-aggrandisement, and more to the point it insults thousands of women prisoners whose real privations it is now doing no more than crassly exploiting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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