French playwright Alexis Michalik has chalked up some extraordinary successes across the channel with a string of Shakespeare adaptations and original plays, but his work hasn’t been seen in Britain until this year. His 2016 comedy Edmond de Bergerac arrived at Birmingham Rep last month, while at north London’s Park Theatre, Ché Walker directs his 2017 prison-drama Intra Muros.
It’s set in HMP Norwich (or is it? Michalik frames everything with a meta-theatrical spin) during a theatre workshop. Five performers – a director, an actor, a liaison and two inmates – are recreating their own life-experiences, from young romances and childhood traumas to mid-life crises. Over 90 minutes, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems, and that all five of them are intimately connected somehow.
There’s undoubtedly structural sophistication and skill in the way that Michalik dives backwards and forwards in time to unravel the situation, but there’s something squeamishly saccharine about Intra Muros as well. It gets unbearably mawkish in the later stages when the interwoven story reaches an emotional climax, and when Michalik really milks the redemptive-power-of-performance angle. Perhaps it loses something in Pamela Hargreaves’ translation.
Still, Walker’s basically bare production – five chairs are all that’s needed – is swift and slick and Rio Kai provides a jaunty jazz-inflected score live. Walker himself is blusteringly comic as floundering director Richard and Declan Perring spits and snarls viciously as inmate Kevin. Strong performances, in an over-sentimental import.