On walking into the theatre, six young men are already sitting there on a stripped-back stage. They stare blankly, even coldly, into the assembling audience. In that moment, I am suddenly struck by a feeling of discomfort, a kind of isolation, of being ‘monitored’. It hit home the human impact of prison life from the onset, as one of the characters in The Jumper Factory later comes to reflect, the claustrophobia is almost constant. 23 hours a day in a cell is a long time…

The Jumper Factory is a play written by Luke Barnes (HAUNT Manchester previously interviewed him here), bringing the stories of people behind bars into blatant realisation. It plays at Manchester’s HOME until the 14 September 2019 – and is presented by Young Vic. We went along to find out more...

The Jumper Factory © Leon Puplett

This is crucially a play just as much about participation, as it is about provoking-thought… and there’s a story behind it. The Jumper Factory was initially conceived just under two years ago, when Young Vic Taking Part– along with Luke Barnes and Director Justin Audibert – developed the play inside one of the biggest prisons in Europe: London’s HMP Wandsworth. Through a series of workshops, eight prisoners shared their experiences and informed a narrative, going onto perform it to other prisoners. The positive reception was triumphant. But how would it be received on the ‘outside’?

The Jumper Factory is an opportunity to engage with the perspective of prisoners for yourself – and perhaps it will question some of your prejudices too. We read newspaper reports of people being sentenced, sent to prison… but where do their stories go after that? The Jumper Factory fizzes with layer after layer of sensitively unlocked accounts, pent up emotion and makes the crucial point –the risk of removing the voices of people when they go to prison, is that it makes their rehabilitation even more difficult.

Sensitive and perceptive writing by Barnes seeks to make us not just evaluate our views on rehabilitation, but to consider how we can engage with it. Indeed, increasing numbers of facilities in Manchester are allowing this to be the case, creative interactions between prisoners and the public – such as The Clink Café. It made me look at the importance of such facilities with renewed energy, upheld the importance of artistic engagement. In this light, HOME too seemed like a particularly fitting location for the play to take place - with a theatre programme often recognised for its forward-thinking, socially-engaging approach.

The Jumper Factory itself is full of energy too, despite the difficult subject matter – a powerful punch of realisation, rather than pulling the audience under. This is certainly enhanced by a dynamic cast: a company of young men aged 18-25 with little or no professional acting experience and whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system in some way, innovatively directed by Josh Parr. Together, on a simple stage with just a single line of chairs, they declare that they are indeed only representations – they are the closest we are able to get to the people ‘inside’. This really emphasised the extent of distance between people in our prison system and society.

And yet their stories are human, humorous, capable of connection. The Jumper Factory moves with a fast-paced narrative, in which the cast come together to tell the story of an unnamed man and his experience ‘inside’. This swapping of identities cleverly expresses how many people in society seem to judge people in prison as ‘all the same’, remove their individuality from the onset. The Jumper Factory fights against that, following the account of a prisoner who tells his family he is working in a ‘Jumper Factory’ – because he feels shame about the reality of his situation. Indeed, there are some people in prison who are much more bitter, angry, dangerous – referred to by the cast as “those people”. But many prisoners do feel remorse too. Shame, sorrow and regret are key emotions explored within the play.

The Jumper Factory © Leon PuplettThere are more emotive surprises too. I certainly didn’t expect to hear the phrase ‘I love you’ to be uttered so much – and this certainly isn’t a criticism. What can be felt on watching the play, is its urgent expression of the very human want which many share: the want to be loved, remembered. To assume all prisoners are beyond that, is to alienate them. As one character reflects on isolation: ‘I feel like a spaceman on Mars’, another talks about family, how his hope lies in ‘them not forgetting me’.  This intensity of feeling emerges through various sequences; some offering a light-hearted look at what the prisoners miss and look forward to, others consisting of heavier encounters with and visits from family.

Exchanges accumulate, dialogue builds, there are conversations in other languages. All this adds to a sense of entrapment, emphasised by atmospheric lighting and apt, beat-heavy music. What the audience are led to wonder is: how does a person cope with this? And not just how do they cope… but what positivity can they create out of it?

Through The Jumper Factory we learn of prisoners’ attempts – a little like knitting a jumper itself – to create comfort; another very human aspect. The importance of ‘ritual’ – that resonates. There are accounts of re-engaging with education, reading, going to the gym… punctuated with reminders of how easily it can be taken away. A particularly memorable moment involves all the bodies on stage channelled into a cumulative cry of anger. Anger is after all, another deeply human quality.

The Jumper Factory © Leon Puplett

Yes, the strength of this play persists in its heartfelt, human aspect. Part of me wanted to see a greater exploration of the possibilities for human connection whilst in prison, friendships, teaching – but perhaps that is just more a case of my curiosity. The Jumper Factory is working within a very intense time period after all – an appropriately intense 45 minutes – and given that, the focus remains on articulating the tension between prisoners ‘inside’ and their fears and hopes for the world ‘outside’. It also works to highlight how relationships with time become warped and shift within prison. The cast on stage give an excellent combined effort too, their chemistry evident as they finish each other’s sentences, urge each other on.

Hope is the stand-out quality, though. For The Jumper Factory and the processes behind it have not only given a voice to those within the prison system – as can be heard through in-built recordings from prisoners at HMP Wandsworth who were originally involved – but also has given and continues to give opportunity. Opening doors rather than just discussing them. And that is an ongoing point for engagement, and inspiration, for us all.  

The Jumper Factory, written by Luke Barnes, directed by Josh Parr and presented by Young Vic, shows at HOME until the 14 September.

By Emily Oldfield

Photography: © Leon Puplett