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BILLY THE GIRL – Soho Theatre, London.

billy the girl, soho theatreReconciling entertaining drama with a deeper underlying message is one of the great challenges of playwriting, and that challenge is complicated further when it comes to work commissioned by Clean Break, the ground-breaking company that seeks to change the lives of women offenders through education and Theatre. However, prolific stage and radio scriptwriter Katie Hims wears the responsibility lightly, using her time with female prisoners at HMP Holloway and Askham Grange as inspiration for a piece with refreshing lightness of touch.

Hims observed that many of the women she worked with presented their situations with real wit, and Billy the Girl is infused with it, from cracking one-liners to wry, intelligent observational humour. The strongest sections of the play treat the familial tensions and wider debates about justice and imprisonment with that same bracing jocularity, switching easily between prison life and Patrick Swayze, stabbings and Slim Fast, and cha cha and cancer.

Danusia Samal is a charismatic presence as recently released Billy, a restless tomboy determinedly clinging to her new “positive mental attitude”. Younger sister Amber (soulful Naomi Ackie) eagerly embraces the rosy picture Billy paints for her, but mother Ingrid (a barnstorming performance by Christine Entwisle) is less inclined to believe in Billy’s ability to change. Her vacillation between maternal affection and acerbic self-preservation is riveting throughout.

It is to Hims’ credit that all three points of view are palatable, and the moral high ground constantly shifts between them. Whether Billy’s bad behaviour stemmed from Ingrid’s apparently slapdash parenting or whether Ingrid’s ability to hold their home together was – and always will be – upset by the presence of Billy is left to us to decide. Everyone in this family, even apparently angelic, well-meaning Amber, has a natural tendency to bend the truth, meaning there can be no easy answers to the big questions.

Billy’s mother and sister largely articulate opposite sides of this complex debate over how to deal with criminality. One demonstrates the idealist hope for reform and redemption through love and understanding, while the other is trapped in the weary, cynical belief in an unstoppable pattern of behaviour that can only be contained or avoided, at best; at worst, collateral damage is inevitable. Interestingly, Billy often echoes one view before embodying the opposite as she makes a concerted effort to improve or slips back into bad habits.

When these arguments are couched in nuanced character work, the issue is brought startling and effectively to life, but there are occasional lapses into bald statement. Billy’s anecdote about a fellow inmate suffering some kind of breakdown in her pottery class illustrates the point that prison can be dangerously destructive without her then declaring it, while Amber’s wide-eyed questioning leads to some rather inelegant exposition.

However, director Lucy Morrison generally maintains a warm, witty tone and slick pace, with big revelations or emotional moments, like a mother/daughter heart-to-heart, slyly undercut by farcical elements and humorous specificity. With such emotive issues on the table, it would be easy to slip into either melodrama or leaden earnestness, but Billy the Girl finds the right balance. A wonderfully engaging piece with a thought-provoking edge.

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Reviewed 02/11/13/

By Marianka Swain

29th Oct – 24th Nov 2013
Soho Theatre, London, W1D.

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