One off: history repeating

Skip to: Noughts and Crosses

Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.

Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.

oneoff_lowres-59First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.

Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.

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