Charged is the most ambitious project to date in the 30-year history of Clean Break, the theatre and education company that works with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. It comprises six plays presented in two cycles of three that can be seen either separately or together. Colonising Soho Theatre, the compellingly acted productions span the entire building, from top-floor studio to the basement of the restaurant.
People unfamiliar with the company's output may flinch from the very idea of such a project, suspecting that it would constitute an orgy of narrowly issue-driven drama and tub-thumping political correctness. In fact, the plays take you in all kinds of unexpected directions. There's even a piece, That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, which slyly satirises a prison writing workshop, contrasting the tactless exercises set by the well-meaning but naive young dramatist with the painful depth of the inner lives of two long-term female inmates.
The subjects range from girl-gangs to older women trapped in the prison system, from child-trafficking to two young graduate policewomen who clash over how they should modify themselves to suit the macho work environment. In Taken by Winsome Pinnock, a recently released drug addict is confronted by the daughter who was removed from her by social services 20 years before. The girl then vengefully casts doubt on her own identity, the imaginative twist sharpening our sense of the mother's feelings of guilt.
There are two outstanding pieces, atmospherically staged in the basement. In Sam Holcroft's Dancing Bears, the terrible, imitative peer pressure of gang culture is brought home by a simple, eloquent device: the male and female tribes are played by the same black actresses, peeled-off hooded sweatshirts becoming baby bundles and vice versa. In Rebecca Prichard's excellent Dream Pill, Samantha Pearl and Danielle Vitalis are extraordinarily good as nine-year-old Nigerian girls sex-trafficked to London. As they give us their (sometimes harrowingly funny) child's-eye view of what has happened to them, they address the audience with questions of a devastating directness that leave you feeling lost for words. It's the sort of stroke that highlights the multiple meanings of the overall title.
To 27 November (020 7478 0100)Reuse content