Cell Outs is a dark comedy written and performed by two ex-prison officers. It follows the true experiences of two young women, as they stare down the injustices of the UK prison system, and attempt to unpick the dangerous effects of power and privilege. Ahead of its showing at Offbeat Oxford, Ella Church and Harriet Troup tell Sam Bennett about trauma, laughter, and survival.
As I’m writing these questions on 3 June, perhaps it’s appropriate to start by asking how you marked the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee…
The classics – BBQs, street fair, but did avoid the official royal trifle – the idea of jelly on cake doesn’t sit well with us.
I suppose there’s a tenuous link there to Cell Outs, in that prisoners are sometimes said to be ‘detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. What do you make of that expression, first of all, and do you think the monarchy has a duty to amend the injustices of the UK prison system?
Hopefully, if a member of the royal family did step foot in a prison (which, naming no names, certain members deserve to) they would realise pretty quickly that there’s no ‘pleasure’ to be derived from incarcerating people in those conditions. The whole of society has a duty to work towards reform and realise the injustices we’re putting people through, and the monarchy isn’t above that. We all play our part.
What’s wrong with the system at the moment?
We don’t claim to be experts on this, we’re only experts on our experience. And what we realised working as prison officers is that nobody deserves to have power over someone else. And there isn’t a way to give an individual power over somebody without corrupting that person’s morality and integrity. It is abuse, on a mass scale, and we became part of that world and part of that abuse. We found it impossible to work in that system and not compromise a part of ourselves and our humanity. The whole system is built upon ideas of power and abuse, the kind we see everywhere in our society. Patriarchy, racism, homophobia, classism. And it forces those working within it to become complicit in those injustices.
Did things change at all in your time as prison officers?
Frankly put, not really. We saw three different prison ministers in our time, a lot of new terminology and processes were brought in, ‘crackdowns’ on drugs, ‘crackdowns’ on corruption, building more prisons. But really, it’s all just a band-aid over a bullet wound when the system is set up the way it is.
Did you ever feel able to call out its injustices while you were still officers?
This is something we explore in the play, and with our interviews with other officers too (which you get to hear during the show). Perhaps we didn’t feel able to, because we saw what happened to the staff who did. They were branded as ‘not one of us’, ‘uppity’, ‘the PC police’, ‘snowflake generation’. And it wasn’t just about being ostracised and socially isolated. It was about survival. If a prisoner is assaulting you, you need to be able to rely on your colleagues to come to your aid. And there are instances where they don’t run to help an officer because they had a reputation as a ‘grass’ or weren’t ‘one of the gang’. So, in order to get by and keep yourself safe, you might assimilate and let stuff slide which you don’t agree with and don’t call out.
Do you have any good memories of working in prison?
There is a bond that’s formed with the people in there, staff and prisoners. That could be the effect of trauma, but you spend more time with those people than your partner, family, and friends. You’re everything to each other and you’re what gets each other through so it’s difficult to lose that. And it’s such a hard world to explain to people (it took us two years to write a play trying to explain it, and that takes us an hour and a half to convey to audiences). It means that often, the people you meet working there feel like the only ones who truly understand the experience. So, there are a lot of good memories and a lot of love for them.
So quite a lot of time had to pass in between leaving the prison system and writing a play about it.
We did need time to process what happened, and make sure we were making the show in a safe way, without just laying bare all our vulnerabilities and experiences until we’d properly healed from them. We left the prison service just before COVID first started, and we finished writing the play just as we came out of lockdown. So, since recent history is measured by lockdowns, that gives you a sense of how much time we took. And we wanted to make sure we spoke to lots of other officers too, and told their stories alongside ours, so that took time. We really believe it’s important that this topic is spoken about with careful consideration, nuance and compassion, and time is essential for that.
Did you always intend for it to be a funny piece?
That was unavoidable. Despite everything said so far, a lot of the experience was also hilarious. And you develop a very unique sense of humour as an officer. Similar to all the emergency services, you have to find a way to laugh at the bleakness so it doesn’t overwhelm you. And frankly, it must’ve been hilarious for everyone in that system to witness us, two naive 21-year-old graduates, rock up convinced we could save the system – no, the entirety of society. We laugh at ourselves a lot in the show, which is really important.
Have you ever performed Cell Outs in prisons?
We’d love to perform the show in prisons, and we are always trying to reach as many people with frontline and lived experience as possible. So, it would be amazing to hear what more officers think, and prisoners too. But we have to be mindful of our content and make sure it’s done in a way that’s trauma-informed and safe. A lot of people are trapped in that environment and their safety and mental health is most important, so parts of the show might be too much.
Is there any focus on the arts within the UK prison system?
There are incredible people fighting for change in the prison system, many of whom are artists. There are some fantastic organisations using theatre and performance to help prisoners explore their emotions, build confidence and rethink their identity – Unlock Drama, Geese Theatre, Synergy to name a few. There’s none to support the people working within prisons though, that’s where we come in.
Which other theatre-makers are exciting you at the moment?
We’ve been really excited by the work of This Egg and are sending them all our best wishes and vibes with the controversy over their latest The Family Sex Show, can’t wait to see it when it’s back. They’re making work the world isn’t ready for and that’s exciting. Also loving the new fluidity in work made by theatre-makers being put on TV, with playwrights like Michaela Coel and Lucy Kirkwood forging a new genre that spans both forms.
Who else on the Offbeat festival programme would you recommend?
We’re really excited to see The Unicorn on the Saturday, we’ve heard brilliant things. And we’d definitely recommend Naughty for innovative and thought-provoking (and hilarious) theatre, which you can catch just before our show, so would be a double whammy of dreams!
What are you watching and listening to right now?
We’re both watching (and absolutely loving) Big Boys by the incredible Jack Rooke on Channel 4 and we’re never not listening to the entirety of Robyn’s back-catalogue – our icon and a classic.