It’s impossible to categorise Danielle Imara’s In Jail: perhaps it’s cabaret, perhaps it’s theatre, perhaps it’s agitprop. But whatever pigeonhole you choose to put it in, it’s undoubtedly fresh and enlivening, founded on a candid real-life tale and performed with bravura pizzazz. From the moment Imara launches into her opening song – which I can best describe as musical theatre crossed with rhymeless hip-hop – it’ll be clear that you’re in for a memorable and creative show.
Imara’s story, which I’m assured is absolutely true, is familiar from hand-wringing commentaries in the liberal press. Her early life took a wrong turn – leading to a slow, almost imperceptible decline into prostitution and drug-taking, and ending with an inevitable arrest and a stint in jail. But she tells her tale smartly and simply, without a hint of self-pity, straightforwardly explaining how a life built on petty crime can come to seem normal to those trapped in a particular world. She doesn’t seek to excuse herself – far from it – but it is remarkably easy to empathise with what she did.
To reconstruct scenes from her life, Imara uses a vast range of techniques, from theatre through singing to dance. (I smiled wryly – though kindly – at the lyric “A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” which Imara performs while doing a little bit of tap.) Again there are a host of clever ideas, including a lip-synch number to highlight the dehumanising effect of imprisonment and video projections reflecting the endless “deadening blandness” of life in jail. But crucially, these are balanced by simpler, more heartfelt passages: there’s one haunting lament about a mother’s grief, which I’m unashamed to report brought tears to my eyes.
Equally affecting are the occasional scenes of straightforward theatre, set in a prison refectory. It’s my duty to report that Imara isn’t quite as powerful an actor as she is a singer, but she’s cleverly teamed up with Carmel Morrissey, whose character Babs is an alarming vision of what Imara could have become. Babs is institutionalised to the extent that she feels she’s being punished when she’s released from jail, yet Morrissey creates a loveable personality for her – so loveable that later, when Babs is confronted with the reality of what she’s done to others, it feels like a slap in the face for the audience too.
Inevitably, when there’s so much on offer, a few things don’t work quite so well. Some of Imara’s dialogues are conducted with a pre-recorded character on a video screen; that’s a decent idea, but it’s very hard to get the timing right, and the conversation simply didn’t flow. And while guest singer Steve Lucas’ soulful voice is undoubtedly a highlight, the first of his appearances felt rather shoehorned-in. Better, I think, to save his searing tones for his rendition of Mr Bojangles, which forms the perfect conclusion to the night.
Imara’s own story also fizzles towards the end: I wanted to know more about why, despite her own show’s depressing predictions, Danielle Imara isn’t now in jail. But she earns her four stars for a breathtakingly honest story, together with a refreshing mix of performance styles. And there’s a clear manifesto underpinning her work – a compelling pointer towards a specific, practical, better way. Case proven, I feel.