7 March 2019.
Originally a well-received fifteen minute play performed at 53two last year as part of JB Shorts, The Stretch has now been developed by director Simon Naylor and writer Joe Ainsworth into a fully formed production.
A grim and gritty exploration of ten years in prison, Ainsworth’s script is quick to dispel the idea that time inside is “like ‘Porridge’, cracking funnies with Fletch“. This is reinforced by the inhospitable set, with its scaffolding structure and basic bunk beds, surrounded by torn wire fencing and hazy unlit corners. There are occasional harsh beams of cold lighting, and a surveillance screen which records the time slipping away.
From the day he is locked up through to his eventual release, we witness Lee’s struggle to survive the pressures, distractions and temptations of incarceration. James Lewis returns to the role of Lee. Burly, blunt and strangely vulnerable, his presence dominates the stage. It’s a strong and nuanced performance. The puffed out chest and cockiness, giving way to slumped shoulders, restless hands and disturbed thoughts. A five strong ensemble give Lee’s character room to expand, while enhancing the prison-based story-telling and adeptly giving voice to the experiences of prisoners’ families and the victims of crime.
Spoken entirely in verse, Joe Ainsworth’s short sharp stanzas suit Lee’s personality (and Lewis’s delivery) down to the ground, with their unflowery vocabulary and punchy direct rhythms. Within these concise parameters, Ainsworth is capable of creating eye-catching flights of graphic imagery. In despair, Lee sees himself as a “dumb beast left to rot, in his cage, off his cake“. Or recalling the elation of meeting his girlfriend Kelly while she was out on a hen night, he proclaims “Like Helen of Troy, she blew off my socks, Floating in on a sea of inflatable cocks“.
The format even allows for subtleties like the gradual revelation of Lee’s troubled childhood and his difficult relationship with his parents. However there are moments when things become unstuck because of the strict adherence to verse, with the writing straining to shoehorn in a rhyme rather than finding the right word. More critically, not every scenario feels suited to the style. Despite the best efforts of the performers, when a victim of crime meets the perpetrator, the complex issues involved are reduced to a verbal exchange with the emotional depth of a greetings card.
Naylor’s production successfully adds ambitious layers to the spoken word narrative. Elianne Hawley choreographs a series of sequences that see the ensemble crowd in, clamber over and cling on to Lee – bringing defined shape to the mental demons that haunt his lonely hours. An expansive and beautifully expressive piece of dance from Zirihi Zadi symbolises Lee’s dreams of freedom, while providing a startling contrast to the restrictive, soul-destroying atmosphere that permeates the rest of his time in prison. There’s also some clever use of sound when the cast beat out a clanging cacophony on the set’s metal frame, as a riot brews.
Solidly anchored by James Lewis’s thoughtful and understated central performance, with support from a passionately committed ensemble, The Stretch is a vivid depiction of the damaging effects of prison life.
Images by Shay Rowan