The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2013
Kate Tempest’s new play is set in a women’s prison; the performance space is clearly defined by a square of white tape on the floor, a constant reminder of the limitations placed on the characters. Forever pacing this square is Chess (Amanda Wilkin); she sings, to the annoyance of her neighbours – in fact, every other line is a cue for a song. The singing binds her to her cellmate Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo) who is up for parole and due to leave. Chess embarks on a twelve-week course with visiting music producer Silver (Martha Laird) who seeks to uncap Chess’s potential, while reconnecting with her own life.
Laird brings a touch of glamour in her black dress and the Mallen streak in her hair. She is a taste of the outside world, whose patience with the reluctant, nervous Chess, pays off. Ikumelo’s Serena is funny – it is through her we see the plight of inmates returned to society, and the difficulties they face trying to rebuild relationships with their children and to cope with the busyness of the outside world.
But it is Wilkin, who never leaves the square, who dominates the piece. A mass of nervous energy, quick-witted and not as strong as she pretends, Chess draws us in. We admire her for her sense of humour and, of course, her singing. She goes from pacing the set like a caged animal, to singing like a caged bird. Her scenes with Ikumelo are both amusing and touching as she tries to conceal her vulnerability. Her scenes with Laird, a student-and-teacher set-up, bring us into the realms of the musical as Chess gains confidence and blossoms under Silver’s tutelage. But this is not about winning a contest or making it big. The stakes are higher – with Serena’s interference there is a chance Chess’s music will connect with the daughter she hasn’t seen since her incarceration.
Tempest’s script has a rich vein of humour running through it (“The name’s Chess, but you can’t play me”) and scenes which could veer into sentimentality are kept restrained, leading to some very touching moments. James Grieve’s direction makes the most of the simple staging, showing it to be more sophisticated than it first appears. The production is a crowd-pleaser at every turn. It touches on issues faced by women in prison, to be sure, but on a wider scale speaks of unlocking one’s potential, of releasing creativity from the constraints put upon it by life and by ourselves.
It’s an uplifting, moving piece, rendered exhilarating by the performances of the excellent cast.