How Clean Break puts the plight of women in the criminal justice system on stage - ‘There’s so much damage’

·6-min read
Favour (Photography: Helen Murray, Art Direction: Studio Doug / Clean Break)
Favour (Photography: Helen Murray, Art Direction: Studio Doug / Clean Break)

The scene opens on a living room in winter. Pakistani finger food sits on the dining table below a ‘Welcome home’ banner. Noor and her 15-year-old granddaughter Leila are waiting for Aleena, Leila’s mother, to arrive home from prison, and everything is about to change.

Favour, by Ambreen Razia – whose critically acclaimed play The Diary of a Hounslow Girl toured the UK in 2016 and was picked up for a BBC Three pilot – is the latest show from pioneering theatre company Clean Break.

For more than four decades, Clean Break has used theatremaking “to keep the subject of women in prison on the cultural radar, helping to reveal the damage caused by the failures of the criminal justice system”.

The private world of a working-class Pakistani family is rarely seen on stage, especially dealing with the subject matters of addiction and the fallout of the criminal justice system. But it is the sort of work that Clean Break – an all-female company set up in prison by Jacki Holborough and Jenny Hicks in 1979 – has long championed.

Avita Jay and Ashna Rabheru in rehearsal for Favour (Photo credit: Joy Olugboyega)
Avita Jay and Ashna Rabheru in rehearsal for Favour (Photo credit: Joy Olugboyega)

The company, whose acclaimed recent work includes [BLANK] and Inside Bitch, has worked with an extraordinary range of playwrights over its 43-year history from Winsome Pinnock and Lucy Kirkwood to Alice Birch and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm.

“We raise difficult questions, inspire debate, and help to effect profound and positive change in the lives of women with experience of the criminal justice system,” it says. Clean Break’s work has been staged at venues from the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court to the Soho Theatre, the Almeida and the Arcola.

Among its most prominent projects was collaborating on the Phyllida Lloyd-directed Shakespeare Trilogy, starring Dame Harriet Walter alongside a cast that included Clean Break graduates, which ran over four years at the Donmar. It took Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest and framed them as if they were being performed by inmates in a women’s prison. In 2016, the company, which included graduates of Clean Break’s education programme, won the 2016 Longford Prize and the shows transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

According to the charity Women In Prison, in the UK around one-third of women in prison have experienced care as a child, almost two-thirds of women in prison are reported to be survivors of domestic abuse, nearly half of the women in prison were suspended or temporarily excluded from school, and approximately three in five women in prison have children under the age of five.

A total of 60 per cent of women are sent to prison for less than six months – just enough time for some to lose their home, job and children.

“There’s so much dysfunction, there’s so much damage, and there’s so much harm, that it’s a life’s job,” says Anna Herrmann. Hermann has been with Clean Break since 2002 and has been joint artistic director and chief executive of the company since 2018.

“I don’t stop having ambition for more creativity and more transformation, both for the women that I see and work with, who inspire me daily, but also in the sector and in the criminal justice system.”

Beyond its shows, Clean Break also offers support to ‘members’ – women who have either had experience with the criminal justice system or are at risk of entering it because of mental health, drug use and other issues – through classes, which all revolve around the theatre. These help to create a community, enhance confidence, and develop skills that can help transform their lives.

Róisín McBrinn (third from the left) directing (Credit: Joy Olugboyega)
Róisín McBrinn (third from the left) directing (Credit: Joy Olugboyega)

Often there is an overlap of both sides of the company’s work. Its latest show Favour has been designed by member Liz Whitbread with mentor Kat Heath. Whitbread joined the company in 2012 and went on to graduate from Wimbledon College of Arts in theatre design in 2019.

“Each time you went into the classes, you just built up more and more confidence,” says Whitbread. “I feel so privileged to have this opportunity and to have support as well. It’s a dream.”

Classes are usually made up of around 12 women, and members tend to stay with the company for about two years, though for some, like Whitbread, it’s a lifelong association. A members advisory group also meets every two weeks, bridging new members and those who have been with the company for decades. “I always describe it as magical. Camaraderie is the word I think,” says Whitbread.

Róisín McBrinn, Clean Break’s outgoing joint artistic director and chief executive, is co-directing Favour. “You can’t underestimate the power of an all-female company,” she says. “But also we’re so fortunate in that we bring a diversity of lived experience together and, without a doubt, this is how the work becomes more depth-filled and more nuanced.”

Clean Break continually returns to women’s prisons – to perform plays, hold workshops, and also to develop material with women serving sentences – particularly with writers without lived experience in the criminal justice system. They did this with Favour too, developing certain scenes with women at HM Prison New Hall in Wakefield.

Róisín McBrinna and Ashna Rabheru in rehearsal (Credit: Joy Olugboyega)
Róisín McBrinna and Ashna Rabheru in rehearsal (Credit: Joy Olugboyega)

Actress Tanya Moodie, who stars in the forthcoming series The Man Who Fell to Earth and starred in Clean Break’s one-woman show Joanne, became a patron in 2018. “What I’ve learned with these women is that we are the same, we are those women,” she says. “All human beings in the human family are the same and can potentially have something impact on our lives. It’s in our life to have to be directly affected by the criminal justice system.”

Ashna Rabheru, who is playing Leila in Favour, says of the play: “I don’t think everyone who’s going to come and watch this will be ready for it.”

The plan, McBrinn adds, is to “try and reach as many people, as well as a diverse an audience as possible, through co-production”. She adds that the Bush Theatre is the perfect partner. Favour is the second play in the Bush’s 50th anniversary season, which also includes productions The P Word by Waleed Akhtar, about fleeing homophobic persecution in Pakistan to seek asylum in the UK, and House of Ife by Beru Tessema, about what happens when the head of a family arrives from Ethiopia for a funeral.

Although Favour tackles important societal issues, it’s just as much a warm family drama, McBrinn adds: “I think it’s going to be surprising for people. I really hope it is.”

Favour runs at the Bush Theatre from June 24 - August 6; bushtheatre.co.uk

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