The idea behind Barred Freedom is to highlight the differences, or similarities, seen in behaviour regarding gender and social environment. Set a 1970s prison, half of the performances are given by an all-male cast, half by an all-female cast. The downside to this concept – in order to see both sides of the story, it is necessary to see the show twice on different nights. Seeing it once was one time too many for me.
Two prison inmates become unlikely friends – Dawson (Matthew Hawes) is a cockney, working class East Ender, throwing rhyming slang into every sentence. Wentworth (Adam Sabatti) is erudite, well-learned and privileged, turning instead to Latin as his language of choice. A prison riot throws the two together for a long period of time and nothing but their imaginations to keep them company. Eugene Ambrose’s story takes the prisoners through mind-numbing boredom, suicide attempts and escape plots, all in the name of breaking free from their confinement, both physically and mentally.
Asia Osborne directs the male version of Barred Freedom, using a stark set that is bleak and sparse. Such a small space gives the actors limited space to move, forced instead to turn to language and speech that passes the time. But the clock ticks slowly, the sense of crushing boredom and loneliness threatening to overcome the jail mates. It has the same effect on the audience as well, who are forced to keep company with the Dawson (Hawes) and Wentworth (Sabatti) in their boredom. Ambrose’s story leaves no room for intrigue, interest or excitement. It trundles along with the same monotony as prison life itself.
Even the actors seem to be affected by the lack of movement within the story. Hawes makes the most of his part, a jack-the-lad that is quick to anger and ashamed to feel. He cracks the odd joke in a desperate attempt to make light of the situation, but is fighting a losing battle. Sabatti is an amateur, a highly strung character meant to flit from one extreme emotion to the other, but ultimately one-dimensional and bland. The action resembles the prison slop served to each inmate, thick sludge that looks foul and tastes just as bad. Osborne seems to have had a 20th century sitcom in mind, but the attempted punch lines fall on deaf ears. It may have been mirrored on episodes of Porridge, but lacks any of the flair, nuance and belly laughter that Ronnie Barker was known for effortlessly conjuring up.
Perhaps the all-female cast will shine a different light on this gender-neutral situation. But few people will experience both, as this would require paying double and coming back another night in the knowledge of what is in store – the same feeling of despair at coming to the interval and realising that there is in fact a second half to this show. Barred Freedom would endlessly benefit from a severe editing in the script – turn this into a one-act play (which is still generous given the lack of tangible material) and play it with a different cast in each half. At least then the message of gender parity will be conveyed to every audience.
Barred Freedom is currently playing The Cockpit and booking until 25 March 2017. Visit the website to book tickets.