Penelope Skinner’s new play – one of two she’s presenting at this year’s fringe – is set in a society in which people’s lives, particularly those of women, are subject to intense state control. A song can land you in prison.
That’s what’s happened to Irene (Shvorne Marks). She’s facing the death penalty for her transgression and, as a result, has inadvertently become a symbol to people around the world, gaining a following on YouTube even as she languishes in a cell. There she is visited by her close friend Ann (Scarlett Brookes) and counselled by a woman called Gud (Amanda Wright).
As is often the case with dystopian drama, the rules of the society are frustratingly opaque. As Max Jones’s austere set shows, with its illuminated cross inset in the grey wall, this is a fundamentalist Christian country, where women are subjugated and artistic expression policed. It all feels a bit like a diluted version of The Handmaid’s Tale. But the precise details of how this society operates and what has led the characters here are left muddy.
Amy Hodge’s production also suffers from a lack of dramatic momentum. Most of the scenes take place in Irene’s cell. There is a pervading sense of stillness and little in the way of emotional texture, even when Irene is offered a way of saving herself. For a play that dabbles in speculative fiction, it feels strangely imaginatively restrained, something magnified by the fact that the plot hangs on a fairly predictable act of betrayal.