A Christmas play in Wormwood Scrubs

A piece about watching charity Only Connect’s Christmas play, put on by prisoners in the Chapel of Wormwood Scrubs, first published on First Drafts, December 2009

The chapel of Wormwood Scrubs prison is a piece of unexpected beauty: Grade II listed, arched in the Romanesque style, its Portland stones white against the massive brick walls and crenellations of the rest of the Victorian site. It was drizzling steadily last night, and a hundred or so of us—visiting civilians, who had spent the last half-hour being carefully processed through the layers of security and thick-walled rooms required to enter any category B prison—stood outside it for a few minutes, waiting for the guards to count us, eyeing the metre-high rolls of barbed wire on every outside wall and fence around us.

We were there to watch the first night of a play organized by Only Connect, an arts company working with prisoners, ex-offenders and young people at risk of offending. Its founder, Danny Kruger, writes a monthly column for Prospect telling in a few hundred words the life stories of some of the people he works with: Raymond, whose mum died when he was in prison; Foster, the burning star, up on a charge of domestic violence. I thought I was prepared for what I would see.

As it turned out, I wasn’t prepared at all. Not really. The 40 minute play exceeded every expectation that I didn’t even know I’d had. The vast space of the chapel had been re-made into a promenade theatre, around which we followed the cast—almost entirely Afro-Carribean, and re-imagining the story of Scrooge as a minor drug lord on the streets of East Acton—as they exploded out of the naves, over heaps of boxes, across chairs and a low bed and the desk from which Scrooge ran his business empire. Not a line was missed; the energy didn’t let up for a moment; the lighting and sets were of a professional standard, flicking us this way and that between scenes and asides; the sound boomed out to fill the space, from a storming reggae Christmas anthem to the gong announcing the ghost of Christmas yet to come, who gestured with a scythe from the pulpit towards a mortuary trolley, where Scrooge saw his own body under a sheet, the back of his head blown off in a gangland execution.

And then came redemption—as in all the best Christmas tales—and it was over, and the cast bowed ecstatically. We applauded, and a few words were spoken. We were reminded that these beaming flushed faces were about to be returned each to their individual cells. Then we would leave, by another exit, to be counted safely out into the real world. Their eyes drank in our applause—and they applauded us in turn. Danny Kruger spoke a few words, about the extraordinary difficulties of putting on a production like this, with men free to move outside their cells for only a few hours each day. The play had failed to start properly the first time around, he explained, because the guards had not yet released the men from the room where they were being kept locked safely away from their audience.

It’s all too easy to pour righteous scorn on the idea of bringing the arts to criminals. What could be more ephemeral, or more hand-wringingly out of touch with the way the world actually is? Last night, these worries died in the face of what I saw: a play that seemed to be the most urgent, real thing in its performers’ lives. What does it mean, for men in a place of shame and correction, to enter the one beautiful building within it, perform, and be applauded by a standing crowd of strangers? Yesterday, it seemed to embody an intense and miraculous combination of freedom and pride—and a taste of what it means to create something that has no relation to crime, to personal history, or any of the other brutalities of prison life. I do not know what they have done, or will do. But I know that something happened that showed what redemption might look and feel like: the faces of strangers, glad because of something good.