Following the jubilant performance of "Sugar", the Stone, Styne and Merrill musical based on "Some Like It Hot", the audience were left cheering, laughing through tears, and shouting for more. However, there were no autograph signings from the cast, no stage door appearances, and no cast drinks afterwards. Instead, the company were escorted straight back to their cells, only after which the audience could leave the auditorium. "Sugar", performed in HMP Send, a closed female training prison with 282 inmates, is the latest venture of Pimlico Opera, under the inspiring leadership of Wasfi Kani OBE.
It is without doubt a vital and brilliant cause, as is clear from the sheer number and stature of the patrons listed in the programme and the fact that the Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, called the production "utterly marvellous and inspiring". While Kani heads Pimlico Opera with a steeliness and ambition that would wow most City workers, not very far beneath the supposedly ruthless surface is a heart that is moved year upon year and at every performance by the prisoners' plights and the impact of their involvement with Pimlico. Tears rolling from under her glasses, Wasfi tells us how she is struck by the uncertainty of the future for these women and the realities they will face when life goes back to normal and Pimlico Opera leaves the prison. "It could have been you", she says, astonished and moved at the sheer stroke of fortune that the life of one of these women didn't fall to her.
At a pre-show tour of the prison a week earlier, we had the privilege of speaking with the woman who is making all of the costumes for the production. At 67, she is serving a life sentence, but speaks with a soft-spoken delight and pride at having this opportunity. Her days now consist of hand sewing in her cell before breakfast and after dinner, and using a sewing maching in the prison's craft workshop throughout the days. Practically single-handedly, she is kitting out the entire cast. Sitting next to this wardrobe mistress is a woman making cards who couldn't be in the show, but who signed her sister up instead. A dry Geordie, she is far from sentimental, but confesses that she and the other prisoners absolutely cannot wait to see the show. "I'm not going to believe it when I see my sister come on stage!" she laughs.
In the rehearsal room, as a handful of professional performers and creative team work alongside the cast and crew of about 30 prisoners, it is clear what a professional set-up Pimlico Opera is. The highest standard is expected of everyone. No exceptions are made for people who haven't learnt their songs or dances, and scenes are rehearsed mercilessly by director Michael Moody. The prisoners are drilled with the same rigour as the professional performers and, as a result, the concentration in the room is tangible. There are a range of ages of women from their early twenties to their sixties, and the perimeter of the room bustles with prisoners involved backstage doing hair, make-up, costumes, scenery, lighting and props.
For the fortnight of the show, a vast marquee has been erected in the prison grounds with an elaborate set and elongated stage with audience on either side. At one end is a beach scene; at the other a line of sleeper train compartments. A fantastic brass-heavy professional band have been brought in under musical director Toby Purser's baton and, as the music starts, the women rush on in fabulous costumes, successfully performing the demanding choreography and direction, and owning the stage.
Every cast member has a named part that generally falls into the camp of slick Chicago gangster or likeable, lively airhead. The professional principals, Rob Gildon, Duncan Patrick, Deryck Hamon and Victoria Ward, propel the hilarious and farcical action forward skilfully, and the rest of the cast follow suit with some rousing chorus numbers, delightful cameo roles, and an overwhelming energy and enthusiasm that no audience member can resist. This show is alive and kicking, and it boasts an impressive attention to detail.
Not only do the people involved, who don't necessarily have a background in theatre, experience the pleasure of working on something top-quality, but the other prisoners have the opportunity to watch their peers in a show that is nothing short of brilliant.
The individual cast programme biogs say it all really, and I'm already looking forward to next year's project.
"I have seen through participating in this the confidence it has given the women including myself.” (Follow spot)
“I didn’t know I could sing or dance. I feel like a different person.” (Trigger Mickey)
“I feel this is beneficial for prisoners as they don’t alienate you, but they make you feel a valuable part of the production instead of just a prisoner.” (Backstage assistant)
“This production is the first time women in this prison have been allowed to express their deepest emotions through acting and this is something that should be encouraged. The discipline of coming to work and doing a full day’s work engaged in something challenging is the perfect way to channel emotions which would minimise being disruptive” (Train Conductor)
“My sons Alexander and Christopher and partner, plus my sister are coming to watch the show. Something for us to tell my lovely granddaughters and baby boy.” (Baby Face Nelson)
“During my time in prison this opera is the first thing I have enjoyed.” (Cirly Girl)
“I have found confidence in things I never thought I would and it has opened my eyes to new ideas for my future.” (Backing Singer)
“Pimlico...recognise that prison should be about engaging individuals as opposed to traumatising which makes prison unbearable.” (Olga)