The Tricycle theatre begins its autumn season examining the state of 21st century Britain with Roy Williams’s tale of prison life.
Category B is not a story of overcrowding or how privileged prisoners may or may not be, rather it is a warning of how effortlessly one can lose sight of prison’s purpose and slip into simple routines; anything for an easy life.
Amid Rosa Maggiora’s set of metal walkways and stairs, the sweatsuit-clad prisoners know how the system works. Jimmy Akingbola’s Saul, a still, imposing presence with a twitching eye that you feel indicates he could explode in a second, runs the wing with help from his Star Wars-quoting, hyperactive sidekick Riz (Abhin Galeya). The prison officers turn a blind eye to their drug dealing and in turn they keep the rest of the inmates in line. That is the way the prison is run; if everyone keeps their head down, everybody has a nice time.
Playwright Williams throws in the issues that complicate the situation. One of the officers, it seems, is bent beyond minor drug blindness, but which one? And what happens when Aml Ameen’s young Rio – a volatile mix of youthful bravado, anger and fear – finds himself in this new world where older, wiser heads rule the roost?
Given the power struggles, the who-owns-who of the prison, the casual racism and the differences between generations, Category B’s institution is not the place of rehabilitation and learning it should be. When Rio first joins its ranks of prisoners he is swiftly given a pack about the lessons and courses he could take; all long-term inmate Errol has learned during his stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure is the answers to his Trivial Pursuit questions. Even away from the inmates, remaining too long within the prison walls has had its affects on the guards too.
If Williams’s new play really does reflect the state of Britain’s prisons in the 21st century, we need to ask what purpose they are serving, as they are certainly not preparing anyone within their confines for life in the real world.