Jailbaby review – Prima Facie’s spiritual successor is heart-thumping but heavy-handed

The percussive beat kicks in before the lights. It’s rhythmic and urgent and hard like a racing heartbeat, a thumping fist. AJ (Anthony Yangoyan), barely 18, is supposed to drive the getaway car of a simple house robbery. A quick job for a couple of older, scarier guys and he’ll be able to go on a team soccer trip that could be the beginning of his professional career.

Suddenly, though, everything goes wrong. Suddenly he’s beckoned inside. Suddenly an alarm goes off.

Suddenly he’s a criminal, the only easy ID from the scene, and everything changes.

So goes the tense introduction to Jailbaby, the highly anticipated new play from lawyer-turned-Olivier-winning playwright Suzie Miller, which is making its debut at Griffin Theatre Co’s tiny SBW Stables Theatre: Sydney’s home for new Australian writing.

Miller is the writer of Prima Facie, another play preoccupied with legal inequities, which won its star Jodie Comer another Olivier on the West End and a Tony award on Broadway. An impassioned one-hander about the failures of the legal system to protect women who have been sexually assaulted (originally directed by Lee Lewis and starring Sheridan Harbridge), it premiered at Griffin in 2019 – and then became a true international phenomenon.

Miller’s work has always had a social conscience. Her previous Griffin plays were 2015’s Caress/Ache, which considered the cruel weight of the death penalty; and 2017’s Sunset Strip, which grappled with community and social responsibility. 2022’s RBG: Of Many, One, for Sydney Theatre Company, examined the life and legacy of late US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Related: Suzie Miller on Prima Facie and her Olivier win: ‘London theatre circles see Australia as the daggy cousin’

Jailbaby is billed as the spiritual successor to Prima Facie, and much like its famous predecessor is aimed directly at the underbelly of so-called justice, hissing and ready to strike.

We follow AJ as he moves through a system he barely understands, and it’s heartbreaking. When his lawyer Olivia (Lucia Mastrantone) tries to explain he has been charged with serious crimes despite his relative lack of agency and culpability, he repeatedly asks if he’ll be out in time for soccer training, if he can make the big scouting trip. We all know he’s not going home.

Olivia clocks AJ’s boyish vulnerabilities early on, and sends a formerly incarcerated man (Anthony Taufa) to give him tips he can’t bear to hear for surviving sexual violence from fellow inmates. This, we know, is foreshadowing.

Jailbaby is a gut-twisting, heart-thumping, heavy-handed play. AJ recounts the mechanical, emotional and physical details of the rape and abuse he suffers while behind bars in lengthy direct-address monologues that are difficult to watch. Director Andrea James keeps a strong pulse (bolstered to great effect by Phil Downing’s relentless composition and sound design), with a clear-eyed approach that resists Miller’s turns towards sentimentality, favouring frankness over flourish.

This is a relief, because Miller’s script veers between searing and simple, challenging and indulgent. When Miller writes in the heightened theatrical language of monologue or soliloquy, she’s at her strongest. When she relies on conversational dialogue, as she does for much of this play, it’s limp and forced – it’s hard to move or make impact with stilted talk, even in this company of three fine actors (Mastrantone and Taufa play multiple roles).

Miller parallels AJ’s journey with that of the far more privileged Seth (also Yangoyan), a boy his age who lived comfortably in the house AJ robbed and whose own brushes with crime are treated with much gentler hands. It’s a promising device, allowing us to see discrepancies in how lives are valued by the state. But the character of Seth is shakily, inconsistently drawn, and when their stories converge and collide, the play veers into soapy cliche and turns leaden. It’s an ending that cheapens the story.

There are powerful, impassioned ideas at the heart of the play. It offers a heart-first illumination of the failings of the prison system on victims and those who commit crimes. But when Jailbaby veers into melodrama, it loses some of its sociopolitical power. It resists the anger and level of legal detail that fuelled Prima Facie and led to real global change in the legal world, and without it, Jailbaby feels earnest but toothless.

Still, there’s value in emotionally intense stories: they can leave people feeling frustrated and helpless, urging us to reconsider unfair, unjust systems. Let Jailbaby be the beginning of a journey engaging with these ideas, as provocative plays are often designed to be – no matter how easy the neat bow of the play’s end might make it to turn away.