Although I did not see Kara Miller's Tamagotchi Heaven on the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe, I well remember how sharply it divided opinion, drawing five-star reviews in some quarters and virulent excoriation in others. Her latest play, Hyacinth Blue – now being toured by Clean Break, the company devoted to work involving and about women prisoners and ex-prisoners – is unlikely to cause quite so much division, but will still, I suspect, be both praised and sniffed at according to taste. I am afraid that I line up with the sniffers.
Miller is evidently an accomplished writer on the "micro" level: she has fashioned her source material – some thirty interviews with women at Cookham Wood and Holloway prisons and at Clean Break – into natural-sounding lines and generally plausible characters. The "macro" aspect of the play, though, is at best uncompelling, at worst irritatingly portentous, and pandered to by Julie-Anne Robinson's direction and Nathalie Gibbs's design.
Three women share a cell: Patience, a young black Londoner inside for mugging, who passes her time by preparing for imaginary visits from a hunky pen-pal; Abina (Martina Laird giving the strongest performance of the trio despite being a late replacement who, when I saw the play, was still "on the book"), a Nigerian drugs "mule" taking refuge in the Bible, and Charlie, a generally harmless nutter who records accounts of modern culture and society as evidence for Those Who Will Come After. Their interactions mingle with elements of their individual histories as they move together in real time towards "the Huge Fact", a final apocalyptic moment in which all three will share.
In effect, all Miller is saying is that, hey, all sorts of different people get banged up, and they all have stories of their own, and they all know things (Charlie quotes Shakespeare, Abina the Book of Revelation, Patience Martin Luther King). Such observations do not make the earth tremble; nor does the mysterious big event at the end, which turns out unsurprisingly to be a suicide pact grounded less in reality than in the need to climax the play. The action takes place in a white, ceilinged box set, within which the cell area gradually slides from one side of the stage to the other – why? On a series of nails on the back wall and the floor, Charlie creates wool pictures of hillscape and tree – why? It does no service to the women for whom Clean Break exists to portray them, as Hyacinth Blue ends up doing, as merely banal when they are not being bent towards artificially inflated writerly ends.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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