Monday, October 3

Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons – Canning Town Library

Created and written by James Kenworth, this production is the latest instalment of The Newham Plays.  These are locally focussed plays, site-specific and digging into Newham’s history.  This collaboration between writer James Kenworth and director Martin Charlton, draws upon the talent from the local schools of Newham, and youth theatre groups, under the guidance of a director and professional actors.

Staged at the Canning Town Library, this celebration of the life of Elizabeth Fry, who fought for the improvement of conditions in prisons, especially for women.  Fry and her husband lived locally in West Ham and she helped the local gypsy community by giving them food, clothing, and medicine. 

Elizabeth Fry or Betsy as she was known, is played by three different performers, in this hybrid of history, mixed with modern speech and music delivered as an all-female soundtrack.  The tale begins with Betsy Gurney (Fry before marriage), telling the tale of her youth, who as a young lady loved to dance and party.  She soon tired of this lifestyle and after a courtship, she married Joseph Fry, a banker who was also a Quaker. 

We are introduced to three dead female prisoners – Mary-Ann James, Harriet Skelton, and Florence Jones, who were all sentenced to death by hanging for paltry offences and along with many other women, their lives were deemed worthless in the eyes of the law.   With their introduction follows an insight into the life of prisoners at Newgate Prison.  Newgate was a mixed gender prison, men and women shared their facilities, and prostitution and rape were common place, as the ladies’ vulnerable position was taken advantage of.  After a visit to the prison, Betsy Fry decided that she must do something to help make changes, and she began with the introduction of a school, as there were many children being raised within the prison walls.

On the day of this performance, the company had a missing cast member, but this was barely noticeable as they adjusted well.  For the history lovers, this production is packed full of historical facts, but delivered in such a way as to not feel like a history lesson.  The performances are lively, and the cast adapted to multiple roles, which they did splendidly.

The mix of modern language and costumes with period equivalents works well and brings this play into the modern age.  This play is suitable for any age, although just a warning for the younger audience, there is sporadic swearing.  The marrying up of professional and local performers and the interesting and historical subject matter make this an interesting piece of theatre, which has been well produced.

To see Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons, follow this link to book tickets –  The show runs until the 27th August 2022.

Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 25th August 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★