A review of Debarred Theatre Company's, The Barred

Debarred Theatre Company is truly one of a kind made up entirely of actors, producers, directors and stagehands with first-hand experience of the British justice system. Their first production, The Barred at Chelsea s Royal Court Theatre is beyond immersive; combining satire as sharp as a knife and fraught, love-stricken relationships mimetic of the Bard himself, don t excuse the pun.

The play effortlessly merges private paternal relationships with a more public, politicised backdrop of punitive prison; the writer, Dean Stalham may just be the new David Hare. He explores the one-step-forward-two-steps-backward volatility of life on a council estate, the crime-committing Catch 22; to prosper through malefaction or to remain trapped by the seemingly impenetrable class ceiling.

This is the story of Daniel who is imprisoned wrongly at the hands of his own father and daughter.

The play begins simply; a conversation on a park bench between grandfather and granddaughter. The fairly mundane setting juxtaposes the tension shared between the two characters as they discuss their incarcerated family member, trapped at their expense. Without a proper set, the actors are dependent only on the words to conjure their situation, which is hardly an effort considering the play s mellifluous script.

Stalham is a literary architect; he constructs characters with foundations as solid as the prison walls he abhors, building, layering and perfecting minute details, until Daniel, the protagonist, is made with an almost tangible soul.

Daniel grew up on a crime-fuelled council estate and, as he sits alone in his cell, he reminisces about the time his father stole an ice cream van and fed the whole community.

Cosy memories soon mutate into a more painful understanding of his father s criminal profligacy. He grasps the opportunity to explore what brought him to this cold, dark, damp-ridden cell, rewinding, re-living his childhood. He has known only violence and criminal activity as a form of expression, but in prison, his pen is his greatest weapon.

He writes poetry.

To begin with, Daniel writes with caution, and certainly without any intention to soothe his battered soul. He is coached and cajoled by a well-to-do writer in residence and realises the value of art as a form of universal communication. Through words, Daniel relinquishes his sense of betrayal.

His pen acts as a hammer to chip away at the concrete class ceiling that has previously suffocated him and his family.

Perhaps Stalham s eye for detail, his touching story telling of a man more afraid of artistic expression than the law, is reflective of his own personal experience. First and foremost, Stalham is a father of five. In this play, the father-daughter bond feels shatterproof and is further strengthened by Daniel s unenviable situation.

Daniel writes his poetry for Holly, just as Stalham writes, directs and paints to support his children. Before becoming one of the most encouraging and truthful writers of our time, Stalham, like Daniel, once lived a Gangster s Paradise ending up in three top security prisons. He has served his time, and is now an advocate for art as rehabilitation in prisons, championing his charity Art Saves Lives.

Although written from personal experience, Stalham still seems to make his themes universal and utterly relatable.

The self-professed company known for stretching the boundaries of traditional theatre, is also familiar with the justice system. Each one of them is looking to be debarred from the theatre world after run-ins with the Police in one way or another. The actors, therefore, offered unrivalled experience and in turn connected on a personal level with the plights of their respective characters.

Andrew Paul s representation of Daniel was a tasteful testament to a man undone by failure and fear occasionally dissembled by a hard-man fa ade. Paul wore the character like a second skin; his performance was almost flawless.

Mr Mac, played by Gerry Knoud, is both loathed and loathing; a prison guard who has seen too much violence and too abhorrent crimes to feel emotional attachment to his inmates. In his eyes, Daniel s pen is only useful as a shank to harm other prisoners, rather than a weapon to fight inequality on the outside.

Stalham and Knoud made Mr Mac relatable to the audience, which was pivotal to the play s success. When using a play as a platform for social commentary, it may be difficult to portray the other side of the argument with sincerity. Knoud followed Stalham s brief, ensuring this was a balanced and educative piece of theatre.

This enlightening play didn t need flamboyant staging or over-the-top lighting; the lyricism of the words and the strength of the acting was more than enough to make the story utterly hypnotic, dragging the audience on its rattling roller coaster with it.

This is not a play for Vinnie Jones or Guy Ritchie; this is a story of familial bonds almost too broken to break and of the healing connectivity of art and literature. The Barred is a social commentary with a heart and one of the most important plays of our time.

For more information follow @Debarredtheatre on Twitter

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