Novelist, playwright, visionary Chris Savage-King, one of whose plays I directed as part of Lovers & Killers in 1998, was from 2001 writer-in-residence at Maidstone Prison. She conceived the audacious idea of producing a show at the prison with prisoners and staff as performers working with a professional creative team. She invited me on board as director. Chris wanted to stage Tommy. I agreed it was perfect.
I had never directed a musical before. That and working with the prisoners were good challenges. I’ve always liked The Who and admire Ken Russell’s lunatic Tommy film. I looked at the Broadway musical version and listened to its score. I didn’t like what I heard. The guts were gone. It didn’t rock. I would simply stage the album without dialogue. Let the story grow in the imagination of the audience as they watched. We had to remove the song Fiddle About as it would be triggering for the inmates. We replaced it with the Ernie character frightening Tommy with Boris the Spider. It meant the same thing metaphorically.
Maidstone inmates were serving very long stretches. Dangers to the public. The building is an imposing brick edifice. Three blocks. One for violent offenders. One for perpetrators of drug-related offences. One for sex offenders. I’ll never forget my first time on a wing. The atmosphere was intense. Chris and I were there to drum up prisoner interest in taking part. I was a skinny, pale poof. Out of place and potentially out of my depth. Chris talked to a contact. A rough and ready felon challenged me. “You’re doing this theatre?” I was going to have to shape up. I looked him in the eye and smiled. “Yes. Do you want to be in it?” He roared with laughter at the idea and wandered off.
The prisoners who did commit worked hard and responded to direction. Occasionally one would throw a chair, especially when frustrated at struggling with lines. This told me they had investment and energy to offer on stage. These men were rarely given affirmation. One kept on looking down when performing. I said, “you’ve a handsome face, show it to the audience.” His whole expression lit up. From that moment he performed out. I didn’t know what the men had done. I knew it was grim. Destructive. The project wasn’t advocating for anybody’s release. It was human beings exercising their God-given ability to create.
We performed in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. A great space with dodgy acoustics. We staged Tommy on the steps leading up to the high altar. No set and limited costume. Captain Walker stretched out his arms to fly his plane. Child’s play. The venue was packed with prisoners for the performances. The roar which greeted the opening chords was something to hear. The end ovation was heartfelt. The critic for the prisoner’s magazine Maidstone Insider raved. The production was commended in the Koestler Awards.
Tommy was followed by A Twist of Oliver! This was my own adaptation of Charles Dickens. It included songs from the golden era of British punk and beyond. I even ended up performing as Mr. Brownlow. The female roles were played in both productions by prison staff, including Chris Savage King as a powerful Mrs Walker and Nancy. We had a brilliant professional musical director, Andy Nichols. We worked as a company. This was important for the men. Having taken themselves out of the community by their own actions, they were rediscovering through theatre what being in a community entails. I learned a huge amount, as a human being and as a director.
A Twist of Oliver! was given another rave review in the Maidstone Insider, this time by the singer and songwriter Jonathan King. He was serving a sentence in the prison at the time. We visited him on the sex offenders wing. He was affable and wanted to support one of the prisoners/performers who was also a songwriter. There was a surprising world of creative support in the prison, of which we were a brief part.
Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Maidstone Prison, Kent, 13-14 September, 2001
Cast: Prisoners and staff of Maidstone Prison
Directed by James Martin Charlton; musical direction by Andy Nichols; choreography by Eduardo Del Rio Escalona; lighting by James Whiteside; produced by Chris Savage King
A Twist of Oliver
Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Maidstone Prison, Kent, 8-10 April, 2002
Cast: Prisoners and staff of Maidstone Prison
Directed by James Martin Charlton; musical direction by Andy Nichols; choreography by Eduardo Del Rio Escalona; lighting by Peter Harrison
“I’d prefer not to be writing this, firstly because I wish everyone had been there to see the show for themselves and secondly I'm forced to dig out the thesaurus in order to find words to review this wonderful show. Many months ago when I heard that the choice for the show was Tommy, I was sceptical, I really didn't think it was a show that would go down at Maidstone — how wrong I was. I have to be honest, I'm not a lover of musicals; if it hadn't been for the fact that I'd promised to write this critique, and an obligation to support the cast who had obviously worked so hard to make the show a success, I probably wouldn't have gone. Unlike the pantomime which, despite all efforts by those involved, was seemingly doomed from the start, this show evolved into an art form. It has to be said however, that Tommy received more backing from prison sources than the ill-fated pantomime. Special thanks go to Governors Val Whitecross and Jeff Orr whose support was invaluable. The mainstay of the production, writer-in-residence Chris Savage King, deserves to be congratulated for the way she battled against numerous obstacles in an effort to ensure that the show went on. Now to the performance itself… Despite the logistical problems heaped on the cast throughout the months of rehearsal, they all kept their heads and their determination to stage a memorable show paid off with a well deserved standing ovation… Without doubt, this show was one of the highlights of the year. I hear that the next production is going to be Oliver! For anyone who is considering a part, be warned that Tommy will be an exceedingly hard act to follow.” – Peter Lewis, Maidstone Insider
"This is not just a jolly for the prisoners. We feel that the chance for them to express themselves is essential for resettlement and to show them that they do have good qualities." – Jeff Orr, Prison Governor, Evening Standard
“So originally directed, so inventive in the use of the space, I was full of admiration.” - Koestler Awards Scheme
“Admiration was the dominant emotion as we watched imagination run riot… Essentially A Twist of Oliver illustrated enormous effort and dedication, terrific enthusiasm and energy, and loads of potential talent on all levels. Thanks to all involved for an enjoyable experience. The church rocked to the rafters at the end as the audience burst out and shouted ‘PLEASE, GUYS, WE WANT SOME MORE!’ ” – Jonathan King, Maidstone Insider