The third play from south London poet/rapper/songwriter/playwright Kate Tempest – who manages to excel in all of those slash-categories – tells the story of two young women in prison, one of whom finds herself through making music. Such a premise needs someone with Tempest's ear for a rhythm and a tune, and no-bullshit, straight-up writing style, to save it from schmaltzy territory. At times Hopelessly Devoted is still a little over-simplistic in its surface-skimming exploration of why its characters are in prison and the challenges they face; it is occasionally epigrammatic and there are unlikely plot developments.
But the performances are bouncily engaging, there's very real, very natural humour delivered with a feather-light touch, and – crucially – the songs and raps are good in their own right and extremely well performed.
Tempest is following her own very tough act here; her last self-performed play/spoken word piece Brand New Ancients was blow-everything-else-out-of-the-water brilliant, in any category (it tellingly won both a Fringe First award for theatre and the Ted Hughes prize for poetry). It may simply be that she can perform her blend of righteous anger and heartfelt emotion without it cloying, but given to others, it sounds more stilted.
Nevertheless, there's much to admire in James Grieve's production.
Amanda Wilkin as Chess, the aspiring musician, delivers a convincingly defensive, hackles-up attitude when beginning the song-writing course; the default cynicism and even bleaker assumption that she doesn't deserve to be good at anything ring true (Tempest wrote Hopelessly Devoted after working on another show in Holloway prison this year).
But it has plenty of feel-good moments too: Chess's interactions with her cellmate Serena (an also appealing Gbemisola Ikumelo) reveal a first for both women: a relationship of deep trust and love, nicely caught by Tempest's dialogue – as well as in some enjoyably daffy, spirit-raising song-and-dances round their cell. Both have beltingly good voices, too.
The design – white lighting outlining a square on the floor, that characters in prison cannot breach – is simple but effective; certain scrappy, repetitive movement sequences, also presumably aiming to convey confinement, are less so. Another thing the play succeeds in is dramatising the creative process: Chess's reaching for rhythms and struggling for rhymes is deftly staged, surpassing the usual writer’s block clichés, even if the overarching theme of musical talent transcending all hardships is less fresh.
On tour across the Midlands till 25 Oct; painesplough.com