Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ which is in Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s ‘Door’ studio until Saturday 5th October and tours in Bridgnorth’s Theatre on the Steps on Wednesday October 9th.
This is my first exposure to Kate Tempest’s theatre writing and I’m mightily impressed. Having spent time visiting Holloway, it seems to me she’s perfectly picked up the content, cadences and contradictions of the language of black women prisoners – and created two young characters who are utterly authentic in every respect. They are raw, confused, but deeply caring cellmates, forming a close bond to save their sanity.
Serena and Chess are played by Gbemisola Ikumelo and Amanda Wilkin who would win hands down on “What’s My Line” …. just looking at them, the panel would never guess they were professional actors. But on stage they are charismatic and infectious performers; bouncing off each other like true blood sisters, energetically recreating their favourite pop videos in their tiny space and embracing each other through the small joys and deep despairs.
Here are three artists with (so far) relatively limited theatre experience who are displaying extraordinary psychological maturity in both writing and performing; especially when it comes to unexpected poignancy.
Serena is about to be released. She’ll have two kids to feed, yet doesn’t know what they like to eat. Chess still has years to serve for her crime of passion. How will she survive?
Kate Tempest chooses to immerse her in that supreme saver of souls; making music.
In walks Silver – a former addict, teaching music therapy for her own therapy. Martina Laird (Casualty’s Comfort Jones) plays her with finely balanced detachment and determination. Her own maturity neatly spaces her from her young prodigy – and the cat and mouse game of tempting the reluctant, truculent twenty-something to sing into a mic rather than to her inmate is knowingly timed. Chess complies (because the only other highlight of her week is going to the toilet) and we share the results.
Tempest is an accomplished songwriter and gives Chess a classic for her break through moment (though the one weakness of the play is that the subsequent songs don’t quite match up to it).
Paines Plough’s James Grieve directs some chilling moments too. Amanda Wilkin goes into a bodily frenzy of self-degradation that is difficult to watch, but hammers home the horror of solitary confinement in a way words alone might not manage. Here we see how a prison sentence can both strengthen and destroy the spirit.
All three premiere plays at the newly refurbished Birmingham Rep are excellent.
‘Hopelessly Devoted’ is an intelligent, superbly observed play, filled with first hand insight and sprinkled with surprising and spontaneous laughs.
It rightly received a raucous and rapturous response; and deserves the same when it tours to Bridgnorth on October 9th.
Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for information about Birmingham Rep.
Visit www.theatreonthesteps.co.uk for information about Bridgnorth’s Theatre on the Steps.
Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood Amanda Wilkin (Chess) and Gbemisola Ikumelo (Serena)