I spent last night in the cells
To tell the truth it wasn’t last night but an hour or so yesterday afternoon. I was in a lock-up, not as a guest of Her Majesty, but as a guest of enterprising West Midlands Playwrighting collective Bold Text.
The Lock-Up in question is attached to Birmingham central police station. It is no longer in use and West Midlands police are applying for Heritage funding to turn it into the West Midlands Police Museum. Bold Text seized the opportunity to work with the police to create a unique event Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up.
The event – a series of monologues and duologues – is truly site-specific. The main character is not one of the several performed for us, but the lock-up itself. The Victorian building is small, the cells arranged prison-style round galleries, are minute, the reception area is cramped and comfortless. The atmosphere is forbidding and full of foreboding. There are real ghosts here; it was in this lock-up the Birmingham Six were held, later wrongly convicted and only relatively recently released (though one had died before release.) In this lock-up serial killer Fred west was held.
But these are not the ghosts Bold Text brings alive for us; These playwrights wish to re-voice figures from our past whose contributions, for better or worse, may be lost forever. Birmingham may be big, it maybe brash, it may even have a world-leading orchestra, but it’s hopeless at blowing its own trumpet.
So among the rich group of characters who come along to tell us their stories is Evelyn Miles, Lock-Up matron and one of the UK’s first women police officers – and she didn’t retire until aged 77. Then there’s detective Charles Muscroft; he was a police photographer; unhappy with the traditional posed table-leaning portraits police were using, he grabbed modern technology (we are talking 1920) and developed the now universal mug-shot – full face and profiles. So too we have Tommy Tank who got drunk and accidentally (according to him) three the scales off his fish-barrow through a pub window. Sarah Bernhardt pays us a visit too – she was required to register there as an alien. And there are more.
Real police offers are on hand, wearing their iconic police capes. Helpfully the custody officer advisees us on entry not to try either of the escape routes that had been tried before; one chap jumped from a window and broke his leg, the other made it to the roof and gave up when he saw how high it was.
Only a fee performances of this strange, unnerving, engrossing event. But a good turn-out for it. Perhaps there may be a further chance to see it.
Playwrights: Stephen Jackson, Liz John, Nicola Jones Helen Kelly, Sayan Kent, Vanessa Oaks, Tim Stimpson, Julia Wright.
Performers: Alison Belbin, David Gray, Francesca Milligan-Slater, Graeme Rose
Behind Bars is at the Lock-p in Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham, till Sunday 21 October
Sat 11am, 2pm, 4:30pm
Sun 11am, 2pm, 4:30pm, 7:30pm