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Inmates to make a prison drama out of Sondheim's 'Assassins'

A history of assassination attempts may not sound like the best rehabilitation project for a band of convicts. But Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the story of 200 years of failed and successful bids to kill American presidents, is taxing inmates of HMP Coldingley at Bisley near Guildford in Surrey, as the latest in a string of musicals staged by prisoners under the direction of the Pimlico Opera. Members of the public will be let inside for the first of seven performances tonight. And, after the show, let out.

The small-scale touring company was founded 18 years ago by Wasfi Kani to stage productions in unusual places from banks to country houses and, since 1991, prisons.

Experience has shown an enthusiastic response from the inmates to works such as The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's tale of low life, and Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's tale of a murderous barber. The Sweeney Todd project at Wormwood Scrubs was the inspiration for a BBC2 film, Tomorrow La Scala!, shown last year.

"I wanted to do pieces that resonate with the prisoners," Ms Kani said. "They quite like being gangsters in Guys and Dolls. And in West Side Story, they can be in two gangs and there's a bit of singing and dancing and lots of fighting. They're very good at fighting. It completely eclipses any other stage fight you've ever seen. Most of the guys in Assassins have never been in a theatre before and it's tricky music. But they completely engage with it. It was written in the early 1990s but is resonant for today. It has one character who tried to fly a plane into the White House."

As with previous productions, the prisoners at Coldingley have had four weeks of rehearsals alongside professional singers who take the principal roles. The purpose is obviously educational and rehabilitative for the inmates, but Ms Kani has a second mission, which is to encourage people to go into the prisons and see them in a positive context.

"I want to inspire debate on the purpose of prisons and what it is we're trying to achieve. If you systematically humiliate them, they're not going to come out as decent human beings."

Paul McDowell, the prison governor, said rehearsals had gone well and they were looking forward to the audience. "This has been an uplifting and inspiring experience for all the prisoners involved," he said.

Pimlico Opera's work has no public subsidy but depends on donations including major support from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.