Suzie Miller’s Jailbaby powerfully shows us the encounter of a young person with an implacable institution. As such, it’s a vividly real, and important, representation of a particular lived experience.
AJ is barely 18 – a kid whose priorities should extend to hanging out with his girlfriend, soccer practice, his team’s upcoming training trip, and little else.
But in the play’s breathless opening stages, it becomes apparent he’s become involved with the wrong crowd – he relays the events of a disastrous break and enter, which now sees him facing prison time.
Jailbaby makes it clear the inevitability of his fortunes, and we watch as this vulnerable person is smashed, physically and mentally, by the system.
In doing so, it’s prepared to defy some theatrical convention to make its point. Performed by the superb Anthony Yangoyan, AJ is it seems – aside from some fleeting choice offered to him by his lawyer – almost entirely without agency.
His horrific fate is informed by a sense of predestination: in remand, for example, at his lawyer’s request, he’s visited by an ex-con who advises him on strategy for dealing with inevitable assault.
Nor do the supporting characters (all excellently performed by Lucia Mastrantone and Anthony Taufa) that figure in AJ’s traumatic journey through the justice system – have much more than transitory, functional, roles in the narrative.
It brings to the play a distinctly uncompromising, documentary feel – which may be a source of frustration to those wishing for something offering a modicum of hope, even the grace notes of a typical prison drama (a Shawshank Redemption, to take an extreme example). But, by committing to its reality, the play empowers itself – its political power – and loses none of its tension.
Meanwhile, AJ’s experiences are counterpointed by those of Seth, the son in the family whose house was subject to the original robbery. He’s going through his own travails with the law – but, of course, he’s enjoying the advantage of being from a different, entirely more privileged, class.
Also played by Yangoyan, there’s an undeniable, and effective, frisson in the dual-role casting. There’s also a curious yet distinct sense of obviousness to proceedings here, emphasised by the short-hand with which the naïve and rather gormless Seth, and his mother, are represented.
But their banality emphasises the implacability of the system within which AJ finds himself, one that prioritises his undeserving peers.
In this context, one of the more significant scenes occurs when Seth’s mother – guilt-ridden and empathising via the obvious similarities with her son – visits AJ in prison to inquire as to his welfare, and is, fairly quickly, told where to go by the young inmate. The potential for a sentimental moment, perhaps that Shawshank-ian redemption, is cut short.
This isn’t, the play says, a situation that can be resolved with a trite emotional connection – nor the redemptive influence of a middle-class interloper (a “white saviour”). This is real life and, by offering an unflinching take on that reality without giving in to sentimentality, Jailbaby attains rare theatrical power.
Jailbaby by Suzi Miller
Griffin Theatre Company
Director: Andrea James
Dramaturg: Declan Greene
Set and Costume Designer: Isabel Hudson
Design Assistant: Hailley Hunt
Lighting Designer Verity Hampson
Lighting Associate: Sammy Read
Composer and Sound Designer: Phil Downing
Stage Manager Madelaine Osborn
Production Manager: Tyler Fitzpatrick
Intimacy and Consent Consultant: Bayley Turner
Fight Choreographer: Tim Dashwood
Cast: Lucia Mastrantone, Anthony Taufa, Anthony Yangoyan
Jailbaby will be performed until 19 August 2023.