OFS reviewer and volunteer usher Lucy saw Cell Outs, July 2022.
Inside the theatre is creepy, but also quite spectacular. The stage represents a prison. There are cages full of items that look like they may have been confiscated, but are in actual fact props. The radio plays over and over, just like a real jail, buzzing out its own crepuscular static amidst requests (“permission to move prisoner”), banging doors and the phonetic alphabet. Sitting there, I was wondering why I hadn’t been searched yet. Were they bringing the dogs over while we waited? Two screws stood mean, scowling and hard-faced. Only the two sparkly, jazzy jackets offered a shred of hope that we were in a theatre and not a prison
Directed by Grace Church, Glasshouse Theatres’ production Cell Outs is an unflinching, riotous and authentic play about working as a prison officer, as written and performed by two ex-POs (Ella Church and Harriet Troup). Their story begins following university. Both holding humanities degrees, they embark upon a graduate scheme that promises rehabilitation and reformation of the prison system through their initiation into it. They’re really just becoming bog-standard screws – over-worked, over-exposed and under-valued. Six weeks and some unsettling training later, they are set loose on the landings – Ella to a woman’s nick (HM PUSSY) and Harriet to a man’s (HM PRICK).
Ella and Harriet play themselves, as well as a variety of other characters. They fall into these seamlessly, easily creating different persona. There’s the head of the grad scheme: duplicitous and smarmy; smug, self-righteous graduates; macho muscle-headed trainers… and then the other PO’s: often sexist, racist and with a grudge against students, as well as most of those under their care. A theme of disdain runs throughout. There is disdain for the graduates, disdain for “wokism” and a general culture of disdain revelling in isms and phobias. This is the culture of the screws; this is the culture of the prison.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, or even if it is, Ella and Harriet have composed a few songs to help you on your way. These are truly priceless parodies. My personal favourite is ‘Spice Up Your Life’, a punchy and potent Spice Girls’ inspired anthem about the large quantities of spice that are to be found in prisons and the sometimes fatal consequences of this. Cell Outs shines a torch on issues that can often seem rayless. It makes light of the dark, but it never shirks the truth. Instead, it turns the light on so other people can see it. It is evocative and visceral. It is comic, catchy and also a bit vulnerable. It is a play, and thensome.
Cell Outs charts Ella and Harriet’s journey as POs. From bright-eyed and idealistic “lambs to the slaughter” to desensitised, demoralised and… imprisoned. It also tells the stories of other graduate POs through different characters and by playing real-life audio accounts on audio. These experiences are varied, but overwhelmingly negative: they testify to a culture of hate, fear, corruption and violence. But they are empathetic towards the prisoners. They criticise their own capacity to perform all the required duties within the circumstances they were working under. The system is critical, it is bursting and it is rotten to the core. They felt they had been manipulated and duped by the grad scheme. Some of them have even developed PTSD.
As well as violence against others, there’s a high rate of self-harm, drug use and even drug overdose amongst prisoners. Many inmates are mentally unwell, a lot of them have been abused and many have drug addictions. A lot of them probably shouldn’t be in prison. As
POs, Ella and Harriet have to deal with a constant flow of medical emergencies, along with being social workers, carers, therapists, heavies etc. Their roles are vast, varied and overwhelming. The norm is ligatures and Islamophobia, the norm is self-harm and sexism, the norm is casual violence (and that’s just the screws). They are desensitised. They lose who they are and become part of the prison. It is inevitable. The environment is toxic and they must adapt to survive… But adapt into what?
Cell Outs is a dark comedy. It is severe in content and sincere in delivery. It is stirring and never holds back, yet it is sensitive to those experiencing incarceration. Ella and Harriet never judge the prisoners. They judge themselves. They judge the system. They blame it and those who have the power to alter it yet do nothing. Cell Outs offers a unique, expansive and exuberant perspective of the prison system. And then punctuates it with some punchy pop paradies, to help you get the beat. It is brutal, it is brilliant, it begs for change and it broadens horizons.