Scrooge in the Scrubs

24 Jan 2017

By Nina Champion 

“It’s about a mean old git, but it’s also about turning your life around so it’s a good story for us."

T’was the week before Christmas and prisons were hitting the headlines again for the wrong reasons. Fuzzy mobile phone footage of disorder on prison wings and images of officers in riot gear were filling our news feeds. With comparisons being made to the 90’s ‘Strangeways’ riots, it felt like the ghost of Christmas past.  I fully expected, as I turned up to Wormwood Scrubs in the bitter cold that December evening, to be told that the production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ had been cancelled.

To my surprise and joy, the prison had taken the admirable and brave decision that ‘the show must go on’. It was the best antidote you could wish for to that week’s negative press.  I only wish that it had been filmed and shown to the public as an example of the amazing things that can be achieved when prisoners and staff work together on something positive. In particular, I wish that the public could have seen the impassioned standing ovation the prisoners gave the prison officer who had been ‘behind the scenes’ making the rehearsals and final performance possible.

This wasn’t just any prison play, it was narrated by renowned actor Simon Callow, of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, who took time out from his one man West End show to rehearse and perform with a group of prisoners and staff members at Wormwood Scrubs. The boost it gave to the men to act alongside him was made clear by the long queue to get their programmes signed by him afterwards!

In a short speech after the play, Simon congratulated the men and staff on the “journey” of putting on a play in such a short space of time (only four rehearsals!) and with obvious restrictions on props and costumes. He said the initial rehearsals had been challenging as the diverse group of men of different ages, cultures and nationalities came together with staff for the first time. However, he was clearly impressed with how quickly they began to work as a team and also praised the governor for his part in making it all happen.

The power of the arts to break down barriers and build positive prisoner-staff relations was picked up by a number of the audience members. Victoria from the charity Give a Book said it was an “affecting collaboration between prisoners, staff and outsiders. Scrooge in the Scrubs showed that, with a willing spirit, magic can be conjured out of anywhere”.

The story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ also resonated with some of the actors. “It’s about a mean old git, but it’s also about turning your life around so it’s a good story for us,” said one.

Sarah Turvey, founder of Prison Reading Groups, reflected: “It's a story about redemption and the Scrubs Scrooges rose brilliantly to the challenge. Their version was inventive, funny, moving and a privilege to watch.”

Starie Uwins, from the charity RAPt, said: “I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the men I work with performing so passionately and enthusiastically. I hope there is scope for more in the future!”

An English teacher at Wormwood Scrubs said: “It was amazing to see something so elegant put together in a short period of time. Nice to see the officers and the men acting together, too.”

As governors take control of prison education budgets I do hope we will see other prisons returning to the arts, which we know is so effective as a vehicle for personal and social development, building confidence and engaging people on a pathway to more formal education. Now that would be a fantastic vision for the ghost of Christmas ‘yet-to-come’!