After Joe Ainsworth’s 15 minute short, The Stretch, received critical acclaim in JB Shorts ’19, it has been extended to an hour long play, depicting the ten year prison sentence of its protagonist, Lee. The Stretch is a powerful play, combining dialogue with music and dance, to expose the violence, mental turmoil, and blunt realities that inmates encounter in prison. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be just fine. I’ll find a way to serve out my time“.
Written entirely in rhyming verse, there is a poetic quality to Joe Ainsworth’s The Stretch that adds an unusual beauty to its unflinching subject matter. It is a device that works well most of the time, lending the play a steady rhythm. However, at times, the poetic language subdues the emotional impact of the play’s harder hitting scenes. As a consequence of the rhyming script, the audience can guess what word is next, reducing its effect. Luckily, the dialogue is exquisitely dictated by James Lewis, whose subtle, layered performance retains the play’s emotional weight.
Reprising his role as Lee, Lewis presents a multi-faceted character, whom the audience slowly warms to. Beginning his sentence, Lee is adamant that his imprisonment is a miscarriage of justice, believing that he will win an appeal. His cocksure attitude is astutely reflected in his muscular, confident posture. Over the course of his sentence, as he painfully accepts the consequences of his actions, his mannerisms become more dejected. Slumped shoulders, a wavering voice and emotional vulnerability indicate that he is becoming a reformed character. As the reasons behind Lee’s incarceration are slowly revealed, he relives events from his past and accepts his guilt, believing that he is a “filthy stain on my poor mother’s name“. Lewis delivers an astonishing performance, which perfectly captures the varying aspects of Lee’s character.
A superb addition to this extended version of The Stretch is the ensemble supporting cast, who brilliantly render episodes from Lee’s past, through dialogue and interpretative dance. Director, Simon Naylor, and Elianne Hawley’s movement direction deserve a great deal of credit. Events from Lee’s past, such as a rugby match, are reenacted through slow-motion expressive movement. This is then juxtaposed with discordant, unnerving dance used to represent violent scenarios within the prison. The ensemble also provide physical manifestations of the mental anxieties that Lee confronts, from drug addiction to suicide.
These anxieties are also rendered through an inspired selection of music. Euphoric dance at the beginning of Lee’s internment reflects his confident, cocky attitude. As his confinement progresses, the brutality of the prison system is reflected through the aggression of heavy metal music. When the physical manifestations of mental health close in around Lee, ambient noise of high-pitched ringing or a low rumbling creates a distortion of sound, that is uncomfortably disturbing.
Likewise, the set and lighting design creates a hostile prison environment. The set is comprised of steel scaffolding encased with metal wire fencing. Members of the ensemble cast climb the structure, ensuring that there is a visually arresting variety of levels onstage. A bunk-bed, steel toilet and wash-basin signify Lee’s sparse cell. Whenever Lee encounters violence, or suffers manifested mental turmoil, the set is lit from the rear of the stage, using striking blue and red hues. Creating visceral imagery, the lighting design perfectly suits the poignancy of the play’s subject matter.
The Stretch graphically explores the brutal experiences of prisoners, through visually and aurally striking design. Told through poetic, rhyming verse, this is a profoundly powerful and arresting play, executed with precision.