Review: The Jailer’s Daughter at The Space

You could be forgiven for not realising that The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a Shakespeare creation (or rather co-creation, in collaboration with John Fletcher), which was itself based on Chaucer. It’s not just that the title’s different, or that The Two Noble Kinsmen is less well-known than many of Shakespeare’s other works. No, the main reason you wouldn’t immediately make the connection is that this reality TV-inspired play is about as far from the early 17th century as you can get.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

In the original, the jailer’s daughter is a lovesick teenager victimised by every male figure in her life and ultimately driven mad by her unrequited desire for an indifferent prince. Not so in Esther Joy Mackay’s reimagined version, where Julia (Grace Hussey-Burd) is one of the few characters who’s actually seeing clearly. Unfortunately her father – The Jailer (Josh Sissons), a Big Brother-esque reality TV boss – has other ideas, especially after she causes a scene in the production room by protesting his show’s moral and ethical shortcomings. Before she knows it, Julia’s in the “lockup” herself, alongside various D-list celebrities, all of them serving time on the show as punishment for crimes committed on the outside. And then there’s Palamon (Rory Gradon), the jewel in the Jailer’s crown – quite literally as it turns out, because he happens to be an actual real-life prince. Naturally, the nation wants a love story… and one way or another, the Jailer is going to make sure they get it.

In a clever twist, Mackay gives the audience a degree of control over how the story unfolds, by setting up a series of votes throughout the show. These are conducted via voting pads handed out at the start of the evening, which add a fun, unpredictable element to the story – even though the questions posed, with one possible exception, never feel like real game-changers. Given the nature of some of the challenges and punishments we’ve seen and heard being handed out (electric shocks, solitary confinement, being made to eat raw chicken or drink all the booze in the house), I was expecting to be faced with tougher choices and to feel more complicit in the characters’ fates. But perhaps that’s just me – and the fact is the reality TV angle does work very well; anyone who’s ever enjoyed, however guiltily, watching Big Brother, Love Island or I’m a Celebrity will spot plenty of references to geek out over.

Under Sarah Fox’s polished direction, the cast slip effortlessly between playing captors and captives (though there are a few moments during the chaotic group scenes when the traverse staging makes it difficult to catch all of the dialogue). It’s no surprise that the two lead male roles, Palamon – the one who’s actually lovesick – and William (Saem Ahmed) the show’s in-house doctor, have been written as blandly boring nice guys, in contrast to Julia’s fiery determination to bring her dad’s entire project crashing to the ground, come what may. Grace Hussey-Burd is a force of nature as the newly reclaimed jailer’s daughter, making it clear from the start that she has a mind of her own and she’s not afraid to use it. And it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of Rachel Wilkes’ brusquely sympathetic Cleo, a former athlete with her own reasons for objecting to the show’s policy of forcing contestants into couples.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a great idea, and certainly succeeds in its aim of bringing the nameless teenager of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play into the light and giving her her own story and identity. From a technological point of view, too, the production is brilliantly executed – lighting, sound and the masterstroke of the voting pads all combine to create a true multimedia experience for the audience. For me, the delivery of the final climactic scene lacked a little bit of drama, but the plot twist is really well written and does genuinely catch you off guard (though who knows, it could be totally different next time). A topical and entertaining take on a 400-year-old play, this is a production that both reality TV fans and cynics alike will enjoy – and then probably debate fiercely all the way home.

The Jailer’s Daughter is at The Space until 24th August.

Review: The Wasp at The Space

There’s a fascinating but rather horrible nature fact at the heart of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2015 play The Wasp. It concerns the tarantula hawk wasp, which is by all accounts exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. I won’t go into the full gory details – if you want to know more, go and see the play – but essentially the baby tarantula hawk wasp grows up inside the abdomen of a tarantula, eating it from the inside out and only emerging when fully grown. Oh, and apparently it’s got one of the most painful stings on the planet – because it didn’t sound bad enough already.

The Wasp at The Space
Photo credit: Robert Bettelheim

Thankfully there are no actual wasps or tarantulas in the play (though it seems only fair to those who hate both even more than I do to mention the ones on the wall – which, depending where you sit, are clearly visible throughout). It does, however, feature an equally gripping power struggle between its two characters. The question is: which of them is the wasp, and which the spider?

Heather (Lucy Pickles) and Carla (Rea Mole) haven’t seen each other since school – and there’s a very good reason for that. But then Heather gets in touch out of the blue with a proposition that unhappily married mum of many Carla can’t refuse. She thinks she knows what she’s getting herself into, but with twenty years of bitterness and disappointment between the two women, their reunion is about to take a very dark turn.

The plot feels at times a bit farfetched, but The Wasp’s sting lies not so much in what happens as why. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, the writer of current West End hit Emilia, obviously knows how to write good female characters – and these two are no exception. We get enough information up front to assume we understand Heather and Carla’s current situations and their history, but as the story gets filled in a little at a time, we realise we’ve barely scratched the surface of what happened between them all those years ago, or the lasting impact it’s had. And while we may not all have gone through the kind of trauma that’s described in vivid, shocking detail in this play, anyone who went to school with other teenage girls can identify on some level with the characters’ experience and emotions, both then and now. (Personally I found that Carla reminded me so much of a girl in my class at school that it was actually a bit disconcerting.)

Presented by The Undisposables and directed by Sarah Fox, the play is set predominantly in Heather’s tastefully middle-class living room; the only hint of the nastiness to come can be found in the aforementioned framed bugs on the wall. As the balance of power shifts back and forth, the twists start to come so thick and fast that eventually we don’t even know who to believe, let alone whose side we should be on. This allows Lucy Pickles and Rea Mole to successfully explore different aspects of their characters; while each starts out as little more than a stereotype based on her social status, by the end of the play the two women have proven themselves to be not only much more complex but also far closer – in every sense – than anyone could have anticipated.

The Wasp at The Space
Photo credit: Robert Bettelheim

Much like the creature for which it’s named, The Wasp is not a nice play. The story delves into themes of mental illness, domestic abuse and sexual assault, and explores the ways in which human beings perpetuate cycles of violence by passing our own hurt on to others. But it’s also not without an element of hope; for all their differences, the two women do at certain moments reach a kind of understanding, and the whole play hinges on the fact that it is possible to choose kindness over violence. Above all, though, The Wasp is a gripping and suspenseful psychological thriller – so if you enjoy a good twist and a surprise ending, this is definitely the play for you.

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