Sometimes a piece of work ticks all the boxes, without feeling like it’s ticking any- rather just being an excellent piece of work. Papertrail’s A Night at the Clink is that.
It fuses immersive theatre, issue-driven theatre, real-life stories, bilingual theatre….and also food. It’s a melting pot of a theatrical dish, and one that works as elegantly as Michelin star service.
Written jointly by Matthew Bulgo, Branwen Davies and Tracey Harris, it weaves the stories of three prisoners working in the Clink Restaurant, derived from real stories of prisoners who have done the same.
The Clink restaurant in Cardiff is part of a network of restaurants set up by The Clink Charity to assist prisoners in transitioning to the outside world the end of their sentences. They work up to 40-hour weeks in the restaurants- one of which is attached to Cardiff prison.
In working at the restaurant, they can earn City and Guilds qualifications, but more importantly, gain skills – both professional and personal- that will assist them upon release.
It’s also a steppingstone and bridge moment between prison and back to the ‘real world’. In Cardiff this small restaurant has gained a reputation for its excellent food, which was incorporated into the performance with a three-course Tapas tasting menu served as the stories are woven around the audience – and the food.
We meet three men in the restaurant, at different points in their journey to that transition. Weaving their stories around a restaurant service, the entire evening feels like a crossover between a chat with your waiter and eavesdropping on the kitchen.
First is Justin (Oliver Wood) who has just been for a job interview. Displaying his passion for coffee through an interview with Starbucks, he’s passionate about not just coffee but making a life for himself when he gets out.
In a series of touching monologues, he tells the story of his interview – his anxiety about the outside world- and how he ended up inside in the first place. Of all the characters he gives least detail, but he weaves the story of his childhood and the events that led him to where he is and you leave feeling you know him best.
Wood gives a funny, engaging performance – he nails the ‘cheeky lad’ element of Justin, making the audience feel at home in what initially is an intimidating set up (actors at close quarters while you eat).
But he also holds the performance together with his magnetism – pulling the audience along with him. And when the more serious side of his character is revealed, Wood plays that with a moving sensitivity.
His right-hand man is Ricky (Aled ap Steffan). The youngest of the three men, who once astounded a customer by speaking Welsh. The notion of a Welsh-speaking prisoner was alien to her, but ultimately by speaking Cymraeg he was also somehow forgiven his sins in her eyes.
He tells his story bilingually – but little is lost for those who don’t speak Welsh – and he communicates his story of being in the wrong place, and falling in with the wrong crowd, and his ambition to do better in the future.
He deftly uses the language as part of his performance – the combinations of Welsh and English betraying his emotional state – the two fusing together as he half speaks to himself, half to the audience.
It’s deft writing that conveys the power of bilingualism and emotional state, but married to an equally deft performance to communicate that.
Also written and performed with precision and depth is his bond with Justin. And Wood and Ap Steffan play it elegantly – there is a touching scene between them where they both hope for better things – not only for themselves but each other.
Their performances bring out the bond between the men, and the subtleties of the bond formed in the restaurant. More on the outside is the third character Marky (Sion Pritchard) the older, somewhat removed chef. He is waiting for his wife and daughter to come and visit the restaurant for his birthday.
There’s a mode jaded, cynical air to Marky. Despite his jokey football-loving exterior, he also has an angry, bitterness to him, and Prichard perfectly weaves the underlying sadness of the character in through.
The production was a near-perfect balance of performative innovation and concept, supported by a perfectly crafted set of narratives. Both the writers and director know how to support one another to create a balanced piece.
In lesser hands, an overly complicated narrative, or high concept direction would have destroyed the piece. As it stands Director Bridget Keehan’s knows the setting, the background and the writing of the piece are enough on their own. Her direction supports them, it doesn’t battle with them, and allows the audiences to come to their own conclusions.
It is a rare thing in site-specific performance for it to feel natural rather than gimmicky or contrived, but Keehan’s piece feels like it could not have been done any other place or way, and that’s the mark of true site-specific work.
It is the writing that truly pulls the piece together. The knowledge that the work is pulled from real-life stories lends it additional power of course, and you cannot help but reflect as you leave the building – in the shadow of Cardiff Prison- on the wider impact of the stories you have just heard.
Davies, Bulgo and Harris have woven a set of stories that engage, move and give pause for thought. In a unique setting, with unique theatrical conceits, balancing bilingual theatre, site-specific theatre, real stories and socially engaged work… all while telling stories that engage an audience – A Night at the Clink is as near as perfect a piece of theatre as you can get.