A theatre company is this month staging a play that asks searching questions of the criminal justice system.
Barred is set inside a cell in the infamous Strangeways prison, where two characters debate whether art and education are viable means of rehabilitation for prisoners.
For 52-year-old playwright Dean Stalham the answer is, undoubtedly, yes.
Stalham, who now lives on Chrisp Street, grew up on a council estate in Burnt Oak and left school at 15 with no O-Levels.
He says he had “no conception of what art was” until serving a six-year stint in Wandsworth prison for handling stolen prints by Warhol and Dali.
Stalham was one of 13 inmates (out of more than 1,500) allowed to take an art course. During the course he made a painting of Mickey Mouse in a Warhol style with the caption: “This is not Mickey Mouse.”
It was selected for inclusion in an exhibition of offenders’ art, an experience that changed Stalham’s life.
His family went along and saw the painting sell for £250. The news galvanised Stalham, but not as much as when his brother told him that he thought he had talent.
“It was like a bolt of lightening,” Stalham recalls, and the belief it gave him rekindled in him an interest in writing plays.
“My first play I wrote in prison was performed by actors from the Royal Court in front of 200 inmates. Just the applause that I got was enough to say this is it this what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Stalham says.
Since his release in 2006, Stalham has devoted his life to art. He founded the charity Art Saves Lives and introduced Billy Bragg’s band for former prisoners, Jail Guitar Doors, at Glastonbury.
He has had a film shown on Channel 4 and written several well-received plays, including 2010’s God Don’t Live on a Council Estate.
“The underbelly of society have been drip-fed for hundreds of years the idea that art’s not to be trusted, that art doesn’t put food on the table, that art doesn’t pay the bills and therefore they don’t have art in their lives,” he says.
“But once art’s in your life the world’s a better place. With art you can communicate, and if you communicate you share and the whole world opens up to you. I know that it does work because I’m living proof of it.”
Barred was performed at The Royal Court last year. Back then it looked at the theme of mental health in prison. Stalham was encouraged enough by its reception to adapt the play with a different theme this year.
“Most of it’s based on my experience,” he explains. “It’s two men in a cell, and one of them believes he can get rehabilitated through education, and the other, who can’t read or write (something there’s a lot of in prison), has no faith in that whatsoever.”
Last year, the actors involved all had first-hand experience of the criminal justice system. This year Stalham has cast his net wider.
Playing the lead is Nigel Travis, who has worked as a fire fighter for 22 years and runs a boxing club for underprivileged kids in Moss Side, Manchester.
Stalham says casting people from a range of backgrounds is an important aim.
“It’s about showing there is a talent and a passion out there capturing and nurturing and encouraging it,” he says.
“I don’t want to get on a soapbox but I just think we’ve got a rawness and a gutsiness that probably trained actors haven’t got and that gives the play an edge.
“Without wanting to be, we’re very unstructured but stories are stories and whether they’re structured or not shouldn’t matter as long as it’s engaging and entertaining.”
Brady Arts Centre
192-196 Hanbury Street, E1 5HU