La Boite Indie
La Boite Roundhouse Theatre
November 5 – 14 2015
Reviewed by Katy Cotter
Co-creators James Brennan and David Woods have conceived a rare and powerful theatrical experience that allows the audience to navigate inside a severely misunderstood world.
The Chat opens up a can of squirming, uncomfortable worms and tries to remove the stigma around the rehabilitation of criminal offenders.
Being a parole officer, Brennan was deeply affected by interviews had with offenders and decided to explore creative outlets that generated discussions and abolished stereotypes. The question that continued to arise and concern Brennan was ‘How should we treat people who commit offences whilst maintaining their dignity?’ The Chat highlights that the relationship between the parole officer and the offender is one that must be valued. It is a delicate relationship as the officer’s job does not require them to assess whether or not the offender is guilty. The performance contains interviews that shed light on the duty of care of the officer, particularly their ongoing battle of providing the right help. It also humanises the offenders with the dialogue being dark yet often comical, revealing the absurdities of situations.
What makes this show so incredible and unsettling is that some of the performers are ex-offenders who are all exceptionally brave human beings and are terrifyingly raw on stage, exposing themselves to a room of strangers. This is such an important element of the work, transforming it from theatre to therapy, or soul-searching.
The performers are literally screaming out for understanding, empathy and compassion.
They want to expel the hate inside of them and are yearning for someone to listen, and help them find solutions to move forward with their lives. The transition back into society and stopping repeated offences is a focus in the show, and solutions are hard to come by. It seems that being in prison is a safer option. One of the performers, Mark Flewell-Smith, almost had me in tears when he said in his rough voice, “I am frightened by no-one but I’m scared of everything.”
There is a fine line between fiction and the truth that keeps audiences engaged. The performers are allowing exclusive access into their lives – their rehabilitation – and whether or not they are bending the truth at times, The Chat evokes a gut response that can only be experienced in person. At times you are possessed with rage and the next a deep sadness. You question how you view people that are different from you and lived different experiences. There is a frustration because you want to know more about the “characters” and how they got to certain points – information needed to then provide adequate help and solutions, yes? This is the dilemma! There are so many questions left unanswered, too much judgment, and not enough listening. Toward the end of the show there is an element of audience participation, where the audience is able to ask performers questions or offer suggestions about how to help them transition back into society.
One audience member simply asked Mark what he wanted. Mark replied, “I want to be just like you. I want to be normal.”
Walking out of the theatre, I was lost for words. I was not satisfied. Then on the drive home, I realised that was the point. The Chat does not end once you leave. It will stay with you; those faces will stay with you. This is an important piece of theatre; it is brave, it is unfair, it is harrowing. Yet there is hope. A hope to be heard, to be given a chance, to be normal…whatever that is.