Hopelessly Devoted at the Pegasus Theatre on Friday night was a triumph of imagination from dramatic conception, through a great ensemble performance to the warm audience reception. Set in a women's prison, the restrictiveness of jail was subtly evoked by a stark white square to which the performance was confined and noises off revealed the ever-present inmates, and intimated at the claustrophobia and isolation of prison. This was reinforced by the body language of Chess, the central character, and her physical tension builds throughout the play, hinting at self-harm and finally expressing itself in an act of self-destruction.
As the play unfolds we learn that Chess, played by Sheila Atim, is subject to a long sentence having killed her long-term abusive partner. Through her song, music and creativity, Chess explores the emotions and issues she is confronting and we gain insight into her experience and understanding of the emotional complexity of her past and her concern for her daughter. Also, whilst she has been in prison, she has fallen in love with her cell mate, Serena (played by Demi Oyediran), who is leaving prison. The honesty, warmth and support inherent in their relationship is subtly played and the focus of the play's humour as they cajole, criticize and comfort each other.
Chess is given the opportunity to record a song with Silver (Frances Ashman), who is teaching a course in prison as part of her drug rehabilitation programme, and the painful conception, construction and performance of the song Chess imagines for her daughter form the central thread of the play. There is also great humour in the interaction between Chess and Silver as Silver tries to coax musical expression from her student.
The play embodies grace under pressure and personalizes some complex and challenging issues. When Chess performs her song at the end of the play and her imagination finds expression, this is not a happy ending but a positive affirmation of the resilience and beauty of the human spirit.