Full of Hope

Theatre company Clean Break presented Billy the Girl, written by Katie Hims, directed by Lucy Morrison and played at Soho Theatre from 29 October to 24 November. Nigel Pascoe QC reviews the play for Counsel.

Good research is rarely wasted. True certainly for prize winning playwright Katie Hims, having tutored in womens’ prisons in drama and completely absorbed the language. In this haunting piece, she reproduces it to perfection. Insecurity, hope and always the fear of rejection in the air, she set out nevertheless to achieve, quite deliberately, a happy ending. The result is a compelling and uplifting quasi-comedy, adding effortlessly to the excellent reputation that Clean Break has gained. For this is purposeful theatre, helping female offenders develop their potential through drama. But absent entirely from the play is any sense of polemic messaging. The picture is true because the playwright has listened and allowed us with considerable skill both to learn and to share. It is some achievement.

Billy is just out of a third prison sentence, but this time with a Positive Mental Attitude. Therapy has worked and drink and fags are out of the window. No choice language either. New beginning, right? Well it would be if her mother had not fallen for a somewhat unusual psychic who may not be all that might be foreseen. Her last partner Frank is no more, and all the evidence suggests he had not treated Billy properly, if you get my meaning. Then there is the little matter of small sums of money being given by the new man behind her mother’s back to Billy’s thirteen year old sister, Amy. What is all that about? History about to repeat itself? Relax, all will end well.

But in the meantime, Billy’s mother is none too welcoming. No chance for a bed in the house or even at first the usual facilities. The old caravan in the garden for you, my girl, because, frankly, I don’t trust you. Burning down the house an accident? Who are you kidding? So quickly Billy faces rejection and good intentions evaporate. The caravan has an eclectic collection of goods nicked by Amy, including a full teddy bear suit. And we must not overlook Frank’s ashes – Frank the less than perfect former partner of Billy’s mother, who had encouraged her none too subtly to put Billy into care for a while. Billy had stabbed him with a fork and no prizes why that might have happened.

But all came right in the end. And why not? Why should not someone like Billy have a second chance, particularly when she was so well motivated on her release. People can change and the past does not always have to be the predictor of the future. Equal praise for Danusia Samal, Christine Entwisle and Naomi Ackie and a special word for the very skilled director, Lucie Morrison. I loved it all, particularly the chaotic caravan filled set, and I left full of hope.

Clean Break is a women’s theatre company using theatre for personal and political change and working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. The company delivers a year-round programme of theatre productions, new writing projects and drama-based education from its North London studios and in women’s prisons.

Nigel Pascoe QC, Pump Court Chambers