Shackled is the play that won Ayse Tary the Minotaur creative writing competition last year. She describes it as a play that “doesn’t feel sorry for itself” which, considering that the protagonist is criminally convicted, terminally ill, and spends almost the entire performance bedridden and chained, initially seems ambitious.
The premise doesn’t advertise an uplifting evening but despite its focus on cancer, broken families and incarceration, Shackled manages to be funny. It’s touching, relatable and above all, honest. This play knows better than to romanticise death or treat it flippantly, instead putting the emphasis onto Harry Barker’s character in his last few weeks, and the significance of the people at his bedside.
The play opens with Harry Barker and William Rigby on stage and, for the next hour and a half, they barely leave it. Harry (Harry Smith) lies in a hospital bed and William (Michael Clarke) sits a few feet away. The pair seem uncomfortable, but their proximity is unavoidable; handcuffs and a five foot chain connect them. The men fidget, a quiet nervousness unfolding which soon infects the audience and prompts laughter every time awkward eye contact is made and polite (albeit suspicious) smiles are exchanged.
Both characters are likeable. Smith plays Harry as a London lad, giving the role realistic maturity as well as a great, boisterous energy. Rigby (Clarke) is the younger and, as Harry points out, he doesn’t really look like a prison guard. Their relationship carries the plot and Clarke and Smith give fantastic performances, maintaining energy in a situation that could easily become static.
The bustle of the other characters boosts this pace. Tina Baston plays Harry’s ex-spouse, shepherding in his kids with constant exasperation and a lovely reserved sense of protective affection. Sam Day and Susannah Martin portrayed the children’s ages very convincingly, and the roles of the doctor, nurse and governor (Jonathan Moss, Jess Boyes and Will Berry) were coolly and precisely performed, the characters believable and never overstated. The entire cast and crew were unfalteringly professional, the unexpected power cut during Friday’s show perturbing no one.
The play is certainly powerful, a fresh and sincere portrayal of cancer, but it somewhat breezes past Harry’s status as a convict. His crime is never divulged to the audience and any issues of conscience (or resentment of a false accusation) are neglected. There’s a niggling feeling that the handcuffs serve principally as a plot device to justify Rigby’s presence.
Regardless, the cast were excellent, the direction was neat and effective and the Cancer Research donation buckets outside were generously met. On leaving the theatre, it felt like a worthy cause and an evening well spent.