Real-life convicts tread the boards as jail puts on 'Chicago'

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The Independent Online

Cold-blooded murder will be committed tonight at Bronzefield prison - and guards won't raise an eyebrow, let alone the alarm.

Thirty female inmates with genuine "previous" - mostly shoplifting, petty theft and drug offences - are staging a production of Chicago, the musical about a group of convicts trying to escape a murderous and exploitative underworld.

They step into the limelight this evening for the opening night of the show's seven-night run. In the audience will be fellow prisoners and members of the public, who will have swapped the usual pre-theatre cloakroom niceties for vigorous searches from prison guards as they go through the gates.

Chicago in the Cells is the invention of Wasfi Kani, director of Pimlico Opera, a touring company which specialises in staging performances in jails. It is the first time that the company has worked in a women's prison. "What better piece than Chicago?" she asked. "It is the story of strong women who find themselves on the wrong side of the law and find that the stage is their passport to freedom and fulfilment." There are four professional actors and a pro orchestra in the production at Bronzefield, a modern prison in Ashford, Middlesex, but the rest of the crew and cast are inmates.

Bronwyn McKenzie, 34, who plays Sergeant Fogarty, is inside for pickpocketing in the West End. She joked: "I've probably stolen a few of the purses of people who went to see Chicago." Five weeks' rehearsing had been "hard work" but enjoyable, she said.

Francesca Paolucci, 28, jailed for drug offences, plays a "merry murderess" who is hanged in a chilling finale. She said: "Prison has taught me never to waste time again. Freedom and life are so important and beautiful." Her Italian family, including her daughter, are travelling from Milan to watch her perform.

Natalie, 24, serving a seven-year sentence, said: "It has given me a chance to prove I have talent. My sentence has had a lot of downs but I'm able to look at this and feel proud."

Each cast and crew member is allowed to invite four family members to see the show. The scarcity of female prisons means some women are jailed far from home, so receive fewer visits than male inmates might. "The last time their family saw them in public was probably in court," Ms Kani said. "This is a way for their relatives to see them in a positive light."

The numerous challenges of staging any production are amplified when the auditorium is a prison gym: every saxophone, costume and lamp has to be searched and searched again by guards on the front gate. There is also the potential for disturbance when gathering some 300 of Her Majesty's guests in one room and dipping the lights.

Since Ms Kani's company first staged Le Nozze di Figaro and Sweeney Todd at Wormwood Scrubs, in 1990-91, it has built a reputation for producing tight, fast shows - the dramatic impact of which is heightened by audience members' incarceration with hundreds of jailbirds for two hours.

Ms Kani said the women in Chicago showed an "enforced cheeriness" despite their circumstances. "Most are young and some have children who have to stay with another woman. Some are facing long sentences. But they pick themselves up and keep going." Few had been to the theatre: "When we went into rehearsals there was a kind of rawness about their acting. You have to tell them that it's OK to exaggerate everything."