Barlinnie in Glasgow has been called the worst prison this side of Russia. It is not a place where you might expect art to flourish, but inmates have now written and produced a play about life before and after a prison term. Our theatre critic visited Barlinnie to see them perform it and came away with hope for the future
• One of the directors Neil Packham with some of his performers during rehearsals
A LIBERATED MAN STANDS on a railway platform, and as the trains are cancelled one by one, he is forced to make a decision that could change his life forever. That's the image around which the whole project has been built, the idea on which the men involved in writing the script have been working for almost five months. Now, on a dark Thursday afternoon in the chapel at Barlinnie Prison, an audience of a few dozen friends and supporters are watching it come alive in front of their eyes.
Down the middle of the long room, there's a reconstruction of a full-size railway platform, with a hint of track – sleepers, rubble – on either side. There's an electronic sign hanging above, bearing the message that "all services are subject to indefinite delays". There are benches and seats, in vivid red; above the stage, there's an impressive lighting rig, bathing the scene in varying levels of light. There's a soundtrack, playing on a loop: sounds of traffic and trains, music, and sounds of men wrestling with the joy and the temptation of that moment when imprisonment ends, and a kind of freedom begins.
And then there is the play, 70 minutes or so of songs and stories about life before and after a prison term, threaded onto the central narrative of Johnny, the newly liberated man. Memorably played by David Devine, a sharp, instinctive, charismatic young actor, Johnny waits on the platform, torn between the woman he loves – who wants him to come straight home – and his mates, who are offering him a wild night of drink, drugs and more. He meets Hector, a station worker as significant and symbolic as Ibsen's crossing-sweeper. With Hector's help, he somehow finally manages to do the right thing.
What we're watching, on this wet November afternoon, is the final phase of the Platform 2:10 project at Barlinnie Prison, funded by Creative Scotland's Inspiring Change Fund for arts-related work with offenders.
It's led by the offender education department at Motherwell College – which works year round in Barlinnie – and put together by a team of arts workers from the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. This week, the project ends with four performances in front of invited audiences, including – most importantly – a large contingent of prisoners' friends and families, who have been invited to the Friday evening show.
Work on the script, set design, and production began back in June, with Kate Hendry of Motherwell College and writer Martin Travers joining a ten-strong group of men who began to develop story ideas. Since September, directors Neil Packham and Elly Goodman, composer Alan Penman and musical director Brian McAlpine, along with half-a-dozen other sound, production and stage management staff, have been rehearsing regularly in Barlinnie, working towards this week's performances. In the last couple of weeks, they were also joined by River City actress Joyce Falconer, who joined the cast to play various wives, girlfriends, and wild, wild women.
"I think one of the important things to grasp," says Goodman, after the show, "is that everything you see here in this space has been devised and created by the men themselves – the 13 in the cast and the many, many others, 30 or 40 in all, who have been involved in set construction, lighting, stage management, all the technical aspects.
"One of the key things about the project is that it has been devised to highlight all the different art-forms and skills that are involved in theatre – so it's writing and acting, designing and building, all the technical aspects, and also the music. Eight fantastic original songs have come out of this process, and they really are brilliant, the men are so chuffed with the work they've done on that.
"Yes, it can be difficult working in a prison – there are practical issues about people having to be escorted everywhere, you don't have any flexibility about lights out or meal times, and you can't just pick up your phone and make a call. But I find that as an artist, I often just get lost in the work. Everything else just disappears from your mind, and it's only at the end of the day, when you go one way and they go the other, that you remember that they are prisoners, and in this really difficult situation."
For Hendry, though, what's remarkable about this project is the extent to which the men involved have been able and willing to stick with it, despite the complexity of the collaborative working involved. Nowadays, Barlinnie is a short-term prison, for men serving sentences of four years or less, and although that means that the men generally have some hope of returning to a better life outside prison, it also means that sustained prison projects can be difficult to manage.
Only last week, Packham and Goodman were confronted by a key cast member who suddenly announced that he might be released on Thursday morning, just before the performance towards which he had been working for months.
"So has the Platform 2:10 Project changed anything? " says Hendry. "Well, it has for me. I now believe that big, ambitious arts projects can work in a short-term jail. It's the scale of the project that's striking, the ambition of it, and the need for everyone to keep working together to make it happen – that's very different from the kind of work the men normally experience." And in the tea-and-biscuits session after the show, one of the actors involved, Tony Bannerman, agrees.
"It's been an amazing experience for us," he says. "To be honest, I don't think the talent of the guys was ever in doubt. But what was a question was whether we would be able to all work together and support each other – there's a feeling among prisoners that other people are always going to be hostile, or damage you in some way. So that's been a great experience, really outstanding."
Out in the world beyond the prison, there are still questions to be asked about initiatives like Platform 2:10 and the whole Inspiring Change programme, which is itself designed to deliver a uniquely detailed assessment of the impact of such projects on offenders who become involved.
The above-the-line cost of Platform 2:10 was around 75,000, not including the salaries of full-time staff involved, either from the Citizens' Theatre or elsewhere: not a lot in the great scheme of public spending, but enough to cause resentment among those who believe that prison should be all about punishment.
For those who know how difficult it is for ex-offenders to move on from a life of crime, there's very little doubt that this kind of spending is good value for money.
Speaking after yesterday's performance in Barlinnie, the prison's Deputy Governor Rhona Hotchkiss says that projects like Platform 2:10 are important because they inspire change not only in those who take part, but in those who have a chance to see them. "Just for a moment there, watching the play," she says, "I forgot that I was watching prisoners. And I want to thank you for that."
And Hendry, watching the men develop their dramatic skills through the project, is convinced that the process of writing and performing can play a role in changing prisoners' lives: "In a sense, I think it's less about them learning to play another person, or see another person's point of view, as about playing themselves, or a different possible version of themselves. There are always problems, of course, in trying to make artistic work serve a purpose like this; the desire for a genuine artistic product can get lost in the process, as if the process was the only thing that mattered.
"But when it works, as I think it has here, it also means that they form strong relationships with the professionals working on the project, relationships where they're seen as possibly having something creative and positive to offer, rather than simply presenting problems.
"And that's how change comes to people, I think, through being seen differently, and coming to see themselves differently. And maybe beginning to envisage a completely different future for themselves, when they are finally released."
• The final performance of Platform 2:10 takes place at Barlinnie Prison this evening. The songs from the show, co-written and performed by the cast, are available on the Citizens' Theatre web site, at citizenstheatre.blogspot.com/2010/10/music-from-heart.html