Review: Being Sebastian 

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Contact Theatre, Manchester, 27 September 2017

In these times of capitalist commercialism, theatre is rarely accessible to working class and oppressed people. Even performances of plays written by socialists like Brecht or Oscar Wilde are co-opted by the market, pricing the poorest out of the action and forcing independent writers and performers to eke out a living in unfunded community locations. But every now and then the sugar-coated stylings of the West End are challenged in creative terms by realist visions exposing the horrors of the system. Being Sebastian, a solo play written and performed by the talented Mancunian Sean Cernow, is a display of the bitingly grim reality at the heart of the British prison regime.

Beginning in the living room of an ex-convict, recently released from Strangeways prison in Manchester, Sebastian relives his time inside through an internal monologue showing graphically the punishment regime meted out to the working class. Thrown into the hands of uncaring bureaucrats on the outside, having to deal with ongoing drug addiction and barely finding anyone who will listen, Sebastian thinks aloud about mental health, life on the inside and the social politics of the wider world. Thumbing through a copy of The Sun newspaper, he finds nothing but scandal and reports of the crimes of the working class, until he reaches a page containing, 'Ah, jobs! ...There are none.' Sebastian contemplates the crimes of the rich, sending the poor to 'wars of pigmentation' where 'the colour of men's skin will be their uniform’.

But it is perhaps in his bleak descriptions of life in prison that Cernow's writing is most challenging to those in power. A regime of urine testing for drugs but no preventative care, discipline-obsessed screws, sleeplessness, mind-numbing 23-hour lockdown with padmates that come and go, and food so poor that the cons describe it as 'transparent' and ask where their dinner is. Cernow writes from experience – Being Sebastian was conceived on 'K Wing' at Strangeways, where the writer spent time with others convicted for petty offences. After the show he discusses the experience with other ex-cons attracted to the show, discussing the extension of sentences at the slightest breach of conditions, and the shocking frequency of suicides in British prisons. 'Most prisoners shouldn't be there in the first place'.

In a particularly tragic moment Sebastian buries his mum and feels alone in the world. On the day of the performance Cernow's own mother had died after long illness, making it even more striking that he felt able to take to the stage that evening and tell the tale of his time inside. Sebastian is representative of the tens of thousands to pass through the prison system, the overwhelming majority from poor areas like Rusholme, Newton Heath and the Manchester neighbourhoods depicted in the play. Being Sebastian is educational viewing for anyone concerned with the plight of the poor, and ammunition for all those wanting to fight the injustices of the system.

Louis Brehony