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18/04/2012 11:24 BST | Updated 17/06/2012 06:12 BST

'A Woman Inside' - How Prison Changes Femininity

A fringe play by a prison therapist about the impact of incarceration on femininity presents an intense and brutal world, yet one in which humanity still gets a redeeming look in.

A fringe play by a prison therapist about the impact of incarceration on femininity presents an intense and brutal world, yet one in which humanity still gets a redeeming look in.

I imagine that prison would be endlessly dull. And that's a toughquality to represent dramatically - boredom. A good place for reading, I am told by someone close to me who spent four weeks inside a women's prison for a breach of the peace in the days of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Sophie Besse, in herplay, "A woman inside" (Etcetera Theatre, Camden, until May 6 2012)certainly avoids tedium. Indeed, the sheer intensity of the one and a half hours is probably the only really unrealistic aspect of the play. This beautifully acted dramais about both brutality and tenderness, about dehumanisation, but alsoabout the triumph of human qualities. No simple oppositions or cliches here.

LIsten to an interview with the author/director, Sophie Besse

The two central characters are inside, inside a cell together, butprison is also seeping into them. The guards get inside them - quiteliterally during the body searches; the smell and dirt gets inside oneinmate, a beautician ... but Sharon, the violent, disturbed prisoneralso lets music get inside her. Eventually and cathartically, shestarts to get some of that inside out.

Sophie Besse has worked as a therapist in prisons and has taught dramato women prisoners. She clearly knows prison as an insider. In the play, the women guards occasionallylet their guard down - they are women inside too.

There is no simplistic moralising in the play. Sharon is a tough nut,whatever she has inside, and whatever has toughened her. There arereal victims to her crime. Guard number 1 puts on a protective,professional mask when she needs to - her softness is a professional weakness. And daffy Barbara may be a lovingmum, but it takes Sharon to remind her how selfish she has been to herdaughter.

The play ends with a redemptive scene in which each inmates acts the part of the other to an audience of just one in the cell - acting out becomes a safe way for Barbara to tell Sharon the truth about herself and vice versa. The play itself has that intimacy and urgency too - the pub theatre is minuscule, with seating for about 50 people, which amplifies the effect. What truth are we being told? Nothing simple, but nothing comforting either about how prison works - or rather doesn't.