Review: Barred Freedom at the Cockpit Theatre

Barred Freedom is the ambitious first project from producer and actor Matthew Hawes. Written by Eugene Ambrose, the play has two casts, one male and one female, who’ll take to the stage on alternating nights throughout this week’s run at the Cockpit Theatre. It’s an interesting idea – the play examines not only the experience of being in prison for each set of characters, but also the developing friendship between them, both of which I imagine could play out quite differently for men and women – and it’s a pity that limited time allows only one viewing.

Anyway, for the purposes of this review, let’s discuss the boys, who are directed by Asia Osborne (while writer Eugene Ambrose directs the female cast). Set in a prison in the 1970s, the story introduces us to well-spoken, educated and – let’s be honest – insufferable know-it-all Wentworth (Adam Sabatti), who’s a new arrival in prison having murdered his spouse (one downfall of the gender neutral approach is that this unlikely word keeps coming up in conversation). His cellmate Dawson (Matthew Hawes) is the polar opposite – he’s been in and out of prison for years, can’t read or write, and spends most of the time having to decipher his Cockney rhyming slang for Wentworth, who unsurprisingly prefers Latin. The two men have been locked in their cell for an indefinite amount of time because of a riot in another wing, and try to alleviate the boredom by talking and playing games, before turning their attention to plotting an escape.

Both Matthew Hawes and Adam Sabatti – along with Mark Loveday, who plays thuggish prison guard Deacon – make their professional theatre debuts with enthusiastic and reasonably polished performances; Hawes is particularly engaging as Dawson, a cheeky chappy with hidden depths and a kind heart. Even so, there are times when the play could use a bit of action. The conversation between the two prisoners takes some interesting twists and turns, but confined as they are to one place (with only their bunks, a table and chairs, and a bucket – which fortunately never gets used – to work with), the story doesn’t really go anywhere and meanders along from one subject to the next, ending on a sweet but rather subdued note instead of the explosive twist ending I’d hoped for.

There’s definitely potential here, though; there are a few almost-incidents that could be developed, and with a bit of pruning (we probably only needed one alphabet game, for instance) the play could be a really interesting one-act piece exploring the true nature of freedom, which ultimately emerges as the story’s central theme. More could also be made of Deacon’s character; his appearances are few and far between, and seem to serve primarily as bonding opportunities for the two cellmates. He’s a bit of a stereotype – bullying prison guard who thinks the prisoners’ lives belong to him – but right at the end, Mark Loveday’s performance reveals a hint of uncertainty that could be explored further. Maybe the prisoners aren’t the only ones looking for a way to escape their grim reality? 

For a debut production, Barred Freedom is off to a promising start, with solid performances and some thought-provoking questions to take away and mull over. It needs a bit of honing, but I’ll be interested to see how the play develops from here.

Barred Freedom is at the Cockpit Theatre until 25th March.

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