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Stitchers review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘hope without sentimentality’

Sinead Cusack, Frankie Wilson and Michael Nardone in Stitchers. Photo: Robert Workman Sinead Cusack, Frankie Wilson and Michael Nardone in Stitchers. Photo: Robert Workman
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Sewing tends to be thought of as a quiet, meditative activity performed by women in peaceful surroundings. The men’s prison in which Hideous Kinky novelist Esther Freud’s enlightening debut play Stitchers is set, is characterised by a headache-inducing din. Max Pappenheim’s outstanding sound design is a cacophony of shouting, fighting, banging of doors and clanging of metal on metal, hardly a place conducive to finding inner peace or producing anything beautiful.

Lady Anne Tree, who in 1997 founded the charity Fine Cell Work, which teaches prisoners professional needlework skills, was a daughter and sister of the Dukes of Devonshire. With no formal education, she discovered her vocation as a prison visitor and campaigner during the war, leading to decades of being labelled a ‘tiresome woman’ by the Home Office. Sinead Cusack is luxury casting, with a no-nonsense but always empathetic nanny-ish demeanour, the best kind of gung-ho aristo and do-gooder.

Liz Cooke’s terrific set of reptilian green walls and metal grills is both visually and physically claustrophobic and director Gaby Dellal’s experience in film is apparent in the sharp pacing. The sewists themselves are well defined, particularly Michael Nardone’s star student Lukasz (‘the strongest man in prison’) and Trevor Laird’s resilient ex-military lifer Len.

By fostering the qualities of artistry and delicacy in which only practically perfect work will do, stitching can be as addictive as drugs (and with far more wholesome end results). Stitchers poses strong arguments for Fine Cell Work’s projects, Lady Anne Tree as a national heroine, and Freud’s skills as a playwright.

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Esther Freud's thoughtfully crafted Great Prison Sewing Bee offers hope without sentimentality