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MDX playwright screens prison reform film to inmates on International Women’s Day

James Kenworth’s play Angel of the Prisons is based on the life and work of Elizabeth Fry

A film adaption of MDX Senior Lecturer James Kenworth's play will be shown at Downview Prison in Banstead, Surrey, today (March 8), to mark International Women's Day.

Angel of the Prisons is based on British Quaker philanthropist and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a major driving force behind legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane after visiting Newgate Prison in 1813 and observing women and children in terrible conditions.

She was supported in her efforts by the reigning monarch George III and campaigned for segregation of the sexes, female matrons for female prisoners, education and employment and religious instruction.

In 1817 Fry created the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners and along with a group of 12 other women lobbied ferociously until prison reform legislation was finally introduced in Parliament in 1823.

James’s play puts Fry’s work, which earned her the nickname ‘Angel of the Prisons’ in the context of today’s criminal justice and penal system and explores the question, what is prison for, and does it work?

James said: “Elizabeth Fry was a formidable, extraordinary woman who dared to go into Newgate prison and insist that prisoners be treated humanely when in Victorian times she was up against a wealth of men who thought she should be at home looking after the children.

“I don’t want the plays to be museum pieces. Elizabeth Fry was around 100 years ago so people think prisons must be miles better now, but my research suggests this is not always the case.”

James describes the play as a “bit of a mash-up” as he combines historical accuracy and a contemporary vibe.

Fry does not appear as a character in her own right, the story is told from the point of view of three prisoners that she knew in Newgate Prison.

“I don’t want an audience to disassociate because it was a long time ago,” James said.

“Forty-five minutes of the play is history, only in the last 15 minutes do I bring it in to contemporary society, so historical purists may quake at the knees at that point.”

Angel of the Prisons is supported by Royal Docks Trust Main Programme Funding 2021/22 and Middlesex University Media Department Faculty Knowledge Exchange Fund.

The film was made by MDX BA Film graduates, produced by MDX Senior Graduate Academic Assistant Nayomi Roshini and directed by MDX Interim Academic Dean Dr James Charlton.

It offers hybrid casting, using professional actors and young people from the Newham area who are just starting out in their acting careers.

The screening at Downview, a prison for women aged 18 and over, came about with help from Howard League for Penal Reform charity.

James said: “When I started writing for the film last year I started contacting the prison reform charities and I really pushed for the screening.

“I am so proud and thrilled to bits that this is happening and the fact it falls on International Women’s Day is perfect- this is about the life and work of an extraordinary woman that doesn’t have the same widespread awareness as Florence Nightingale, and she should, so it is just fantastic.”

James will take part in a Q & A following the screening.

“I am a bit nervous as my audience will have lived experience of prisons, it is the real thing,” he said.

Angel of the Prisons is the fifth in the series of Newham Plays, all rooted in Newham’s history, culture and people.

When Chaplin Met Gandhi, Revolution Farm, A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham and Alice in Canning Town all offer unique collaboration between professional theatre artists and young people in Newham.

International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

There is also a Women in STEM – Coffee Networking Event on campus.

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