I saw this exciting yet deeply moving play (tour details below) at a pop up arts space in Forest Gate, East London. The perfect place for it. Bare room with some experimental art on the wall and rows of chairs facing the set, which had the same dimensions as a cell – only 12×8. Barred shows us a mostly secret and hidden world behind bang-up.
Any that make decisions about the fate of prisoners should experience just a day in a room as small as this. It is suffocating. This, for me, was a powerful, powerful choice by Dean Stalham (who also directed) to use of the lack of physical space prisoners endure and the constant need to lift water-filled weights contributed to the intensity of the insightful and authentic exploration of a pair of cell mates’ relationship and how they survive their stretch.
Barred is a play that explores the true complexities of life inside. Two men in a box forced to struggle with their demons and the system that holds them captive. Set in Strangeways in 1994 cell mates, Salford born Danny (Nigel Travis) and Liverpool born Ali (Thomas Jan Johnston) go head to head, fighting for survival. Danny believing that he can find salvation and redemption through art and education, Ali believing the only way to do a prison sentence is by doing it the hard way.
I cannot begin to describe the brilliance of this piece. Dean Stalham, himself a former prisoner, writes with brutal elegance but also there are nonsensical flourishes “crazy nights – fantastical days – end up doing time – in Strangeways…”
In Barred he has, with the skill and total commitment from his actors produced a work that leaves you stunned and yet enlightened. Nigel Travis shows a heart breaking sensitivity as Danny, especially concerning the loss of his relationship with his daughter. Thomas Jan Johnston’s hilarious turn as Ali can switch from all northern bonhomie and warmth to a cold, dead eyed snake loathing his cell mate, the system and himself. Whatever his mood, Ali rages against the world.
Having had some experience with the system myself I cannot recommend Barred highly enough. For its searing honesty, understanding of the human condition and the redemptive possibilities of artistic endeavours. Oh and by the way, it is VERY funny. Theatre doing its job for a change and doing it extremely well.
I would like to leave with a quote from Dean Stalham as I cannot say it better.
“But once art’s in your life the world’s a better place. With art you can communicate, and if you communicate you share and the whole world opens up to you. I know that it does work because I’m living proof of it.”
Review by Oscar Ciros
Barred is produced by the charity Stretch STRETCH CHARITY who promote change through cultural education and are always looking for creative ways to reach those marginalised by society.
Next showing at The Baltic Social 25-29 Parliament Street, L8 5RN Liverpool. firstname.lastname@example.org
The play has received Arts Council funding to tour England and deliver FREE events.