Thursday 30th June 2022 at Bush Theatre, London.
Reviewer: Maygan Forbes
Our stories on women adjusting to life after lived experience of the Criminal Justice System are few and far between. I can think of a couple of films such as Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper) and The Unforgivable (dir. Nora Fingscheidt), I’m sure there are more however the fact remains that it is very rare we come across stories being told of women with lived experience of the Criminal Justice System trying to slowly reintingrate back into society. Written by Ambreen Razia, Favour offers up a perspective of women searching for a new lease of life after time spent in the Criminal Justice System.
The play opens up with Leila (played by Ashna Rabheru) excitedly awaiting the return of her mother Aleena (Avita Jay) after she had spent two years in the Criminal Justice System. However Leila’s excitement is dulled down by her traditional and strict grandmother Noor (Renu Brindle). Noor is nervous for the family dynamics, afraid of what the sudden shift will mean for her standing in the community. Noor has also implemented a routine to keep the household running and Leila well disciplined; Leila is encouraged to embrace her religion, go to bed on time and be respectful to her elders (regardless of their own problematic temperaments). It’s a system that has served them well for the past two years, however Aleena’s arrival threatens to dismantle that structure.
The play is primarily told from the perspective of Leila, this is a anecdote I thoroughly enjoyed because whilst the play centres itself around Aleena’s story Leila is an integral part to it and the sudden disruption in her life highlights the often forgotten stories of the children affected by family members who have spent time in the Criminal Justice System.
Favour brings light to difficult topics that are not always addressed in families. Leila suffers from anxiety and is prescribed medication for this. Noor is dedicated to ensuring Leila’s mental health is safeguarded from any upset, and if this means cutting off her daughter Aleena then so be it. It’s almost as though Noor is attempting to redo the past and instil the discipline and control that maybe she felt was neglected from Aleena’s life whilst growing up. There were references to Aleena’s lack of paternal presence, her father was there physically but mentally and spiritually had checked out.
Noor mentions feelings of resentment for having to financially look after the family whilst still trying to maintain a household and remain an upstanding faithful member of the community. She is keen to not repeat the past mistakes made with Aleena’s upbringing and comes down heavy on Leila. It was refreshing to see a family of colour portrayed on stage to be embracing mental health diagnoses and not shying away from medication intervention.
I think its important to talk about the production company itself Clean Break. Established in 1979, Clean Break uses theatre to keep the subject of women in prison on the cultural radar, helping to reveal the damage caused by the failures of the criminal justice system.
Through their unique work, workshops, and projects in prison and in the community, they raise difficult questions, inspire debate, and help to effect profound and positive change in the lives of women with experience of the criminal justice system. Clean Break’s women-only identity is crucial to their ethos and invites those important conversations to happen surrounding women’s treatment in and out of prison. Favour is a wonderful display of a real family going through an experience that isn’t sugarcoated or downplayed, Ambreen Razia explicitly wants the audience to see a side about life after prison that is rarely told.
One visual that sticks out quite prominently, Noor is praying on stage whilst Aleena is simultaneously embracing a new lease to her spirituality through yoga and meditation. In one move, directors Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram communicates a story within the silent movements on stage. Two generations of women leaning on their spirituality to find peace and comfort amidst the turmoil. It’s particularly beautiful because until that point, Aleena and Noor are tense and awkward with each other. There was no affection between them and the only love they seem to have in common is for Leila and her wellbeing.
With absolutely flawless acting from the cast, I recommend this show and hope it encourages conversations around women in the Criminal Justice System.
Favour plays Bush Theatre, London until August 6th 2022 – you can find tickets here.