Sunday 4 November 2018

Pimlico Opera goes back to prison

Robin Bailey as Jean Valjean in Pimlico Opera's production of Les Misérables at HMP Highdown in 2017 (Richard Lewisohn)
Robin Bailey as Jean Valjean in Pimlico Opera's production of
Les Misérables at HMP Highdown in 2017 (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Later this month Wasfi Kani's Pimlico Opera will be presenting a run of performances of the musical Sweet Charity (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon) in HMP Bronzefield, Ashfield, Surrey. The performers, apart from leads such as Charity (played by Laura Pitt-Pulford), are mainly women residents. Pimlico Opera has been presenting shows in prisons since 1991, and during that time it has presented 22 shows, more than 50,000 members of the public been taken into prison to see a show, the company has worked with more than 1,000 prisoners and over 10,000 prisoners have seen a show.

The project at HMP Bronzefield is an opportunity for the participants to cultivate a sense of meaning and understanding of their past behaviours and for their families to see them in a positive context and be proud of them, and their families will play a key role in their rehabilitation. Ian Whiteside, HMP Bronzefield director, said: “Staging this event with Pimlico Opera is an excellent way to develop offenders’ interpersonal skills, their discipline, their teamworking skills and build their confidence, ultimately giving them the best chance of finding employment upon release.”

For each project, Pimlico Opera goes into the prison for five weeks, rehearsing with the prisoners full time. Most have never acted before, or been inside a theatre. The Pimlico Opera team (with a professional director, a few professional singers, a core professional backstage team) support them as they learn their roles, improve vocal technique and develop their stagecraft in time for opening night. The company gives several performances for members of the public, along with performances for prison staff and for fellow prisoners.

You might be wondering whether we can afford what might be perceived as luxuries in our hard-pressed prison service, but Wasfi Kani comments "The debate about the purpose of prison and whether it can reduce re-offending is rarely out of the news. A New Philanthropy Capital survey shows re-offending costs the taxpayer approximately £13.5 billion a year and that engaging prisoners in arts projects could halve this. Pimlico Opera aims to unlock talent, instil confidence and show the participants that they can think differently about themselves and their future. Moreover, the paying public who see these shows is astonished by the talent on display."

Pimlico Opera's first ever performance in 1991, in Wormwood Scrubs, included The Observer's music critic Fiona Maddocks in the cast, and she wrote an illuminating article in The Guardian in 2009, well worth a read.

Sweet Charity is at HMP Bronzefield from 9 November 2018, further information from the Pimlico Opera website, ticket booking view the Grange Park Opera website.

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