Clean Break and the Royal Court Theatre present Inside Bitch, an authentic ensemble performance that looks at the real lives of women in prison as not seen on TV.
You might think that because you’ve seen TV shows like Orange is the New Black or Bad Girls, you know what it’s like for women in prison: that there are gangs and fights, attempted (and successful) break-outs and suicides, inmates taking and trading drugs all while wearing overalls in signal colours. And let’s not forget the guards who seem not to care at all about the well-being of their inmates, most of which are in for a really nasty crime. Inside Bitch wants you to know that prison life for women is not like it’s portrayed on TV. That’s not to say that some of the story-lines and actions we see acted out on the screens don’t contain a grain of truth, but that much of it is completely inauthentic, flamboyant, and milked for ratings. Thus, the image society has of women who went to or are in prison is distorted by the way media has and continues to represent them and their lives behind bars. At least, this is what the four women who star in Inside Bitch claim. And why should we trust them instead? Well, for one, they’ve been inside.
It’s almost as if a documentary unfolds on stage, one that follows the four actresses (played by Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small) and the creators (Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson) through the various stages of developing and pitching a TV show that reveals what life is really like for women in prison. The line between autobiography and fiction is blurred, maybe not even there at all. This effect is enhanced by the use of multimedia devices, such as a screen, which not only feature subtitles akin to those seen in documentaries, but also plays video montages of audition tapes. These conventions emphasise the play’s overall dynamic and harmonic atmosphere. The four women play, if not themselves, at least versions of themselves and lay parts of their lives open on stage. The whole show lives through this honesty and authenticity, and is conveyed by the nuanced performances of the four women and the great chemistry between them.
The show is cleverly put together, and Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson definitely know how to use the medium of theatre. The play begins with a record being put on – the metaphoric use of the vinyl indicating the women’s prison records – and this simple action lets you know that you’re in for a ride. Inside Bitch is dynamic and intriguing thanks to its metafictionality and effects of alienation. Shout out to stage manager Crystal who can be seen working around the set in several instances and interacting with the four women, becoming the fifth member of the cast and receiving well-deserved applause at the end. The fourth wall is not only broken in these instances, but a space for interactivity opens up between the cast and the audience through direct addresses and extended dialogue. In what is perhaps the play’s funniest scene, the ‘focus group’, the four women are given several tasks that have to be completed in 30 seconds each, often with the help of the audience. It felt like we were the live audience in a TV game show. These theatrical techniques could be seen as alienating but they work hand-in-hand with the show’s being rooted in the real life experiences of the actors and help to create a sense of community.
Although I was on my own, I felt part of a communal audience. We shared laugher and lumps in our throats and even the popcorn went from being a stage prop to an audience snack. As the very diverse cast and crew were brought together on and off stage, the audience was as well. Pleased, the four actresses also acknowledged this diversity as yet another instance of breaking the fourth wall. I had expected a play titled Inside Bitch with an exclusively female cast and crew to attract a mostly female audience, yet while the majority certainly were female, I saw surprisingly more men than I had anticipated in the auditorium. Some who were in attendance seemed to be partners, friends, and family members, but others were possibly on their own. I saw various ethnicities and age groups; from people in their early 20s to a couple getting on for eighty. Inside Bitch is not aimed at a particular audience, it is inclusive rather than exclusive and that is, among others, the charm of the show.
The play manages to keep a balance between comedy and drama, being at times playful, at others serious. As stated in the end, there is nothing funny about being in prison. Comedy is a way of coming to terms with a very real experience that is often distorted in the media, leading to a stigma surrounding having served time. In this last statement, the show’s authenticity and honesty is emphasised, because things aren’t either or; they aren’t black and white, good or bad. When the women fail to close the curtain in the end and it literally falls down, reality and fiction have finally merged and can’t be kept apart by a thin piece of fabric any longer. Although I couldn’t figure out if that was actually part of the play or an accident, it made a great point: there is not necessarily a binary of things, of inside and outside. One’s experience in prison will always be a part of one’s life and although one might eventually leave prison like the audience leaves the theatre, the curtain never fully closes on that experience.
Inside Bitch is a social critique of consumerism. This is reflected in the cart full of Inside Bitch merchandise brought on stage in the final minutes of the play, which also highlights the media’s distortion of a very real experience of life in prison simply to increase ratings. It is, for example, less vulgar than I would have expected from the title, yet it still challenges the audience to think about and reflect on their own view of women in prison. In that, the play has found an apt stage at the Royal Court Theatre, which is not only known for its radical and political plays but also its exploration of social work theatre. Its collaboration with Clean Break illustrates this once again.
Inside Bitch is a show that’s cleverly put together. It draws attention to its artificiality as a play while crossing many boundaries that theatre usually builds up in the first place. Inside Bitch works deliberately and ironically with TV show tropes, which in its very nature the play critiques. It succeeds in raising the audience’s awareness of the alienating effect the media can have on our perception of life inside prisons and beyond, but at the same time it keeps a comic undertone. Inside Bitch never comes across too strong or overbearing thanks to the authentic performances of the actresses and a well-developed and well-directed story.
Inside Bitch finishes its run at the Royal Court Theatre on 23rd March. Find out more about the play and book tickets here. Clean Break is a women’s theatre company founded to share women’s experiences in prison on stage with the community. Find out more about the company here.