Too guarded

Too guarded

25 March 2018

Sarah Carston shows deftness in her portrayal of a solitary prison inmate but Hatch is too evasive of the brutality, says Lily James

A room with a keyboard, a drum machine, and fairy lights wrapped around the bunkbeds. They’re necessary props for Hatch to work, of course, but they serve a dual purpose – I recognise them. Sarah Carton could be talking to you from her student bedroom; it’s just that she definitely isn’t.

Hatch focuses in on the experiences of being a young woman in the British prison system. It uses spoken word, monologue and intense, Etta Bond-ish songs to universalise these experiences. Carton’s songwriting deals in woozy allegories: "Right, right where you left me, I started I started to rise." Again, the focus is on creating moments of affinity and intimacy with the audience, dealing with larger ideas of abandonment, loneliness, being left, rather than the specific conditions of Jess’s imprisonment.

This effect is hugely successful when the show illuminates Jess’s relationship with her part-time dealer boyfriend, Cal. Here, the songs create softness and slows pace in-between monologues that are delivered like you just met Jess in a pub loo. A particularly strong image of a man being like turmeric, yellowing your fingernails, is established early on. The movements she tracks across their relationship are painful, and delivered with dizzying speed. Jess goes from missing Cal’s hair, and his ability to play it cool, to missing him on coke, because he looks a little bit in love on it. She misses being pinned against the wall too – it bears mentioning that’s census notes that 46 per cent of female prisoners have suffered domestic violence. The Independent puts the figure at 57 per cent.

One of the deftest ways that Carton expresses Jess’s isolation is through her physicality: she only moves in the ways we do when we are certain we are completely alone – she shuffles around stage on her knees, does crap shoulder-stands on the bed. She cocoons herself in her jumper, half-wears it. It’s the same when she’s singing – there’s a sense of play, but the kind of play you would only do if no one was listening – extending the final notes and warping them.  

But when Hatch begins to deal in the specific brutalities experienced by Jess in prison, what was sensuous and ambiguous begins to look evasive. The revelation of a suicide attempt is too brief to make any wider connections to self-harm as a systemic issue. The same problem arises when a strip-tease for a guard ("My guard") is played camp, Carton undressing cabaret-style. Here, the touch feels too light, avoiding any sort of drive towards a crisis. This lack of tension makes the work feel oddly flat at points, and it’s not long enough for this flatness to become a comment on repetition or ennui. Motifs are only ever repeated twice, and it means that rhythms disappear before they gain enough traction.

I’d like to see patterns established that fully negotiate the timeframe of Hatch: how moments of teenage whimsy (a guard that smells like foam bananas) interplay with the instances of extreme trauma (that same guard cutting ligatures off Jess’s neck with shears). Carton’s charisma is undeniable – she just needs to build space into this piece to fully flex it.

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 Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca