by Laura Kressly
As part of Clean Break’s 40th anniversary celebrations, this outdoor, in-person production showcases some of the work the company created over the past year. The collection of short monologues created by Clean Break members and associate artists all share stories of loss, isolation and loneliness, which are further contextualised by lived experiences of incarceration. The character-driven pieces are remarkable examples of human resilience in the face of systemic oppression and a criminal justice system that is punitive and cruel.
We never meet Joanne. We do however, meet four women who encounter her at different points over a crucial 24-hour period of her life, and one that remembers her as a child. We learn that she cuts a tall, striking figure, makes immediate impact on those she meets and she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere the world. Joanne is homeless and has just been released from prison. Production company Clean Break, founded by 2 female prisoners in 1979 and still producing, recognizes the importance of sharing stories from vulnerable women prone to falling through society’s cracks. Joanne, written by five female playwrights, has some wonderful writing and is skillfully performed in an intimate space but the brevity of the monologues and talking around Joanne distances rather than fully engages.
Tanya Moodie first plays a key worker, then easily slips into a police officer, an NHS receptionist, a hostel cleaner and a teacher. All were moved by Joanne’s plight and wanted to help her, innately sensing her need for support. These women related to something within Joanne, humanizing her and the thousands of other female prisoners like her. Moodie captures the genuine care these women feel, as well as their conflict – police officer Grace isn’t supposed to get attached to her cases, but alludes to her own struggle with finding a place in the world for her and her daughter. I am particularly touched by Kathleen, on the front line of an NHS hospital for 28 years. She makes some pointed critiques of government legislation’s effects on her workplace and its effects on those most needing care. These stories are much more engrossing than Joanne’s because they’re in front of us, as Joanne herself is a shadowy puzzle that we slowly and satisfyingly piece together.
Through written by five different writers, the monologues seamlessly connect but remain stylistically distinct. Told in the past tense through the sharing of memories, they are fine examples of storytelling that Moodie makes active and varied rather than nostalgic. She owns the distinct characterization of these women, skillfully masking Róisín McBrinn’s direction. Colour changing light-up columns and panels add visual variation, but don’t contribute towards meaning or location. Their presence is unimposing, but unnecessary. The otherwise minimal, black set draws all attention onto Moodie, as it should in this production. Audience focus is on Joanne’s attempted helpers and their capacity to empathise; they are more solid and demanding of immediate attention than the silhouetted subject of their stories who leaves nothing but a memory.
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