Freaking Free Mark DeFriest at Bread and Roses Theatre Online
The quite charming Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham is back open and hosting fringe theatre to South London pundits. The first performance of Unmarked Theatre’s Brecht-worshipping Freaking Free Mark DeFriest seems largely made up of the cast’s family and friends, but that creates quite a special community atmosphere at a time when theatre has been forced to become increasingly isolated. Written and directed by Aaron-Lee Eyles, Freaking Free Mark DeFriest playfully recounts life on the inside for Mark DeFriest, who was convicted in 1980 for stealing his father’s work tools and has made so many escape attempts that he’s known as Houdini of Florida.
It’s a crazy life, and Eyles adapts it for the stage by taking a different formal approach to each scene: an LSD-fuelled escape is an Artaudian piece of physical theatre; letters between Mark and his wife on the outside (the versatile Georgina Squires, who plays every female character – and a few of the men, too) are sing-rapped like a Clapham Manuel Miranda; a flashback to his childhood has Mark flicking between TV channels projected onto a wall; and a “how to make a taser” show is reminiscent of Julia Childs. This patented approach of “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” sometimes works gangbusters, while at other times the hour-long play buckles under the weight of too many moving parts.
Mark is played with great skill by Jay O’Connell, a newcomer with a strong chin and cab door ears that give him a cheeky likability. His version of the protagonist is a comic interpretation of deep south signifiers from Cool Hand Luke to The Dukes of Hazzard. He gamely steps up to the show’s scatty energy, but when, a few scenes in, the audience is asked to decide if Mark is mentally unfit for prison, or a sociopathic manipulator of the courts, we haven’t seen enough different sides of the man to make the decision, and a slightly awkward silence sweeps the room.
Across this 40-year tale, there are other assumptions made by the company that leave spectators asking the wrong questions. Aside from a particularly misguided RuPaul’s Drag Race-inspired lip-sync bit about being a prison wife which is at best inappropriate, the biggest question mark comes in the opening monologue. Introducing Mark’s story, actor Warren Graham asks the audience if this tale of a man sent to prison for very little isn’t the saddest story we’ve ever heard. Frankly, no it isn’t. What happened to Mark DeFriest is awful, but plenty of people in America don’t get to stand trial, or even have the opportunity to be taken into custody, as the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded people this year. You would have expected a play that makes references to Trump and the Coronavirus pandemic to understand that.
Freaking Free Mark DeFriest is at Bread and Roses Theatre Online from 14th September until 16th September 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.