Adetomiwa Edun, Paul Bentall, David Burt, Cornell S. John, Scarlett Alice Johnson, Owen Oakeshott, Beru Tessema, Rob Ostlere
In his first full length play, Slaves, actor and one time prison worker, Rex Obano, paints a tense believable picture of world where everyone has an agenda.
The play is set in HMP Wandsworth and at its heart is a demonstration of just how easy it is for one mans good intentions to be strangled by the system. More broadly its about the nature of prisons – of putting up walls – and the many ways in which people can become captives of their own doubts and anxieties.
New prison officer Chris Jackson, young, ambitious, but also in some ways naive, is on a fast track graduate programme with an eye on becoming the next governor, but his relative experience on the job is exploited by those on both sides of the bars.
On the one hand hes being manipulated by Jenks, a young man who went to the same school as him and who uses this connection to put pressure on Chris, but he also faces flack and resentment from the more experienced officers.
Obano skilfully conveys the complicated relationship that exists between the men: the fragile and ever shifting web of respect, friendship, authority, menace and aversion. He illustrates how Chris, as a newcomer, needs to learn to read the ties between the men and to not make snap judgements, if hes ever to make headway in his career, and together with director Nadia Latif, he creates a convincing picture of the volatile nature of life lived on the inside.
Tension hums through nearly every scene and Latif successfully maintains an unrelenting sense of things simmering; the men are like pans gathered on a gas hob and the possibility of sudden eruption casts a constant shadow. Several scenes contain overlapping dialogue or a constant barrage of off-stage noise. This manages to further convey the desperately tense atmosphere of a prison and to underline the ever-present threat of violence, the scent of aggression in the air. This approach can however be a little too abrasive, too unrelenting, and the scenes where conversations overlap one another, in a cinematic and somewhat Altman-esque fashion, need to be tighter or risk becoming muddled.
The intimate nature of the space works in the productions favour, enhancing the sense of claustrophobia and confinement. Lorna Ritchies stark, white-walled set is also effective; consisting only of a couple of moveable metal screens its successfully used to depict the various spaces of the prison.
The cast do, in the main, an impressive job with the material. Last years Globe Romeo, Adetomiwa Edun is suitably conflicted as Chris, a basically decent man who rapidly ends up out of depth, while Paul Bentall is plausibly bullish and gruff, yet not utterly incapable of sensitivity, as White, the long-serving screw. It is White, with his straight-down-the-line manner, who manages to forge real connections with some of the inmates while Chris ends up getting played.
Obano is one of the 503Five, a group of unproduced playwrights whose work is being nurtured by the south London theatre. On this evidence he definitely warrants watching. The play takes its audience into a particular world and makes it live. Its not without flaws, some considerable, and at times it feels as if there are too many different balls being juggled in terms of plot. Some of the narrative twists also feel contrived, as if they’ve been forced upon the play to give it shape and direction, but theres a definite power to the writing and that compensates for a lot.