A thought-provoking piece of theatre uniquely created in collaboration with inmates at HMP Wandsworth and seeking to crack open the hidden human stories of life in prison, written by Luke Barnes, is coming to Manchester’s HOME from 10-14 September 2019.

The Jumper Factory is a play that doesn’t shy away from asking difficult and daring questions – questions that affect the audience, as well as inmates themselves. How would you survive in prison? How do you develop the resilience to re-adjust to a society that seems to go on without you? And how can we learn from each other to all progress together?

The Jumper Factory © Leon Puplett

These are subjects which can be hard to face, but crucial too. In a year that has already seen the Chancellor pledge to fund 10,000 additional prison places – highlighting what is already an overstretched and historically under-supported system – engaging with prisons and the people in them matters more than ever. This is something that playwright Luke Barnes upholds and explores significantly in his thought-provoking work.

It is also part of the reason why The Jumper Factory has been created alongside people serving time at HMP Wandsworth, a London-based institution: one of the biggest prisons in Europe. Readers may remember it also being notoriously described as one of the ‘worst’ of its kind in recent reports, with media stories of demeaning and unsafe treatment abound.

Now The Jumper Factory allows inmates themselves to express their own stories – intense and eye-opening as well as offering capacity for connection and insight. Creativity and connection is key for rehabilitation. Conceived By Young Vic Taking Part and Justin Audibert, the play puts previously obscured accounts of real life, regret and resilience in the spotlight and shows how the arts in prison can be a point of engagement for us all.

Luke Barnes In turn, HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to the Liverpool-based playwright Luke Barnes (pictured left), a man who is certainly no stranger to exploring impactful and challenging accounts within his award-winning work. One such example of his work is his writing for THE MEN IN BLUE PROJECT at Latitude Festival: a community show made with men who have been mental health service users. Other work includes All We Ever Wanted Was Everything (Bush Theatre and various venues) and Lost Boys, currently at Unity Theatre in Liverpool (until 11 September, then various community venues) – exploring the life of young people in a Northern new town, mental health, masculinity and more.

The Jumper Factory is an opportunity for a Manchester audience to see Luke’s writing brought to life within HOME’s intimate theatre space, with the Tuesday 10 September showing (19:45), including a post-show Q&A with cast and crew.

Hello Luke. Many people may associate people in the prison system with ‘being removed from the community’… so why do you think reconnecting their stories with society is important?

“The first thing to say about this is that we need to ask the question “do we believe in redemption”. People are put into prisons because they’re deemed to have been found guilty of committing a crime. If they’ve done something then they’re punished and after the punishment is over society is expected to see them as having paid their time… however that’s not the case. Prisoners often complain about coming out of prison and not being taken seriously for jobs or for housing, so I hope that by telling a story that humanises them and their experiences we can take a small step to reimagining our idea of redemption. Secondly exploring the idea of the experiences of prisoners in prisons will put people off going in the first place.”

In turn, is this a play that exposes (the prejudices of, for example) the audience as much as it exposes the stories of the inmates? 

“Absolutely. As I say, we have a lot of preconceptions about prisoners. Mainly that they are “bad” but prisoners are often victims of circumstances and are always deserving of a second chance. I hope that by telling these stories we can humanise them.”

The play has been created in collaboration with inmates at HMP Wandsworth. Can you tell us a bit more about the research process – did you begin writing before you met with the inmates, or was your writing very much shaped by the interactions you had? 

“The first version of this play was created and performed by the inmates at HMP Wandsworth for other inmates within the prison. I had no intentions. I had no experiences of prison or prisoners going in, so I wanted to make something that they wanted to talk about. They all spoke about the need to perform masculinity inside whilst life passed them by outside, with the wider gesture of being seen as inhuman when they leave prison.

“A series of group chats and the theme and individual chats lead to a series of observations about the world that I structured into a form that is flexible enough to accommodate inmates leaving, being moved, being released or dropping out. 

“Mainly the process was identifying a subject matter, talking through in depth what that meant in the literal context of a world I had no idea about and then finding a form for it.

“If you try and preach your voice in a world you know nothing about then it’s pointless art. In this context it’s about giving platform for others to speak.”

Photo © Leon Puplett

When discussing the prison system, people often use terms such as ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’. Do you think the use of language around this subject can be problematic?

“A lot of prisoners seem to phrase incarcerations as “protecting the public” which is something I’d never heard of. I don’t think inside vs outside is a problem because that’s exactly what it feels like when you’re in prison. I think you are taken out of the world. It feels like that. The issue is more with how we see prisoners rather than the act of being in prison.”

How did this experience challenge you as a playwright – and was there anything in particular that surprised you?

“The thing that always surprises me is the insight into the world you can get if you take the time to sit and listen to that you wouldn’t normally. Every time I do a project like this I am shocked by the depth of the world we encounter. Listening more and imposing ideology less is how we move towards a better world.”

Why the title ‘The Jumper Factory’?

“…. You’ll have to wait and see!”

So come and see it for yourself at HOME, 10-14 September.

By Emily Oldfield

Photography for The Jumper Factory © Leon Puplett