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Borstal boy

Errol McGlashan told David Hennessy about his one man show about prison life and his real life experiences of being locked up that inspired it.

Award- winning spoken word artist Errol McGlashan’s Something to Take Off the Edge is a one man show about two men in a prison cell.

Errol, known as Uncle Errol, does not have to try too hard to imagine what that is like as he has spent a lot of time behind bars.

And growing up in care, he knew that was where he was heading. Errol tells us when he was a young man no one spoke to him about universities or college.

But it was in prison he found creative writing. He has now been a performance poet for many years.

Something to Take off the Edge is his first foray into the theatrical world.

It is the story of Ezra and Terry. Ezra is a black Londoner like Errol himself while Terry comes from an Irish Traveller background and is partly based on a cell mate he had.

Something to Take off the Edge is a poignant but funny story that follows the two men as they flirt with everything from chocolate hob nobs to heroin while serving their time.

The piece has been selected from more than 2,000 entries as one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s prestigious 37 Plays to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio. 37 Plays marks this anniversary by selecting and celebrating a new series of 37 brand new works that reflect the world we live in today.

But before that, Errol brings the play to Camden Fringe where he will do 23 shows across 9 theatres throughout August.

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Errol told The Irish World: “I’m looking forward to it.

“I am new to theatre.

“I’ve been a performance poet for ten years but theatre is a new foray for me.

“I got into it because I couldn’t perform during the lockdown.

“A couple of years ago I wrote this little story about a guy who went into prison on remand and when he came out, he was addicted to heroin.

“I read the story to someone and they said, ‘I can imagine that as a one man show, but I can only imagine you performing it’.

“And that was all I needed.

“Then lockdown happened so I thought, ‘Right, I’m gonna write this thing’.

“So I just started writing the show.

“It gave me something to fantasise on, you know?

“So I just thought, ‘Right, by the time lockdown comes out, I’m going to have this play written and rehearsed, ready for delivery’.”

You’ve spent time in prison yourself so this is a personal story to you, isn’t it? “Yeah, they say you’ve got to turn your dark into art.

“I grew up in care.

“While I’m not blaming anyone, I’m just saying that when I was young, people did not talk about university or starting a business or stuff like that.

“The conversation was around what detention centre you’re going to go to, what borstal you’re going to go to, what young offenders’ institute….

“So to me, it was a rite of passage that I knew I was going to do detention centre. I knew I was going to do borstal.

“And the reason I knew that was because the older boys in the home I was in, the home for naughty boys, they’d all been and they’d come back with the tales.

“Something To Take off the Edge is based on that time in the 80s where the slightest thing, you were getting put on remand, or get a six month sentence or nine month sentence.

“I’m talking about when I was a teenager running about going wild, you know?

“I’ve been inside a few times and I use all of that to make this show so even though it’s fictionalised, it’s a fictionalised account of lived experience.”

Something to Take off the Edge alludes to that feeling of being in prison and just wanting some kind of break from the monotony which of course can be things like reading, drugs or violence.

“I explore all these things without being explicit about it.

“I explore many of the things that people do to take off the edge whether that be reading to praying.

“I’ve got a line in there where I say, ‘There’s nothing like a long term prison sentence to renew your faith in God’.

“Because you do start feeling sorry for yourself, you pick up the Bible because you’ve got time.

“But out here you think I’ve got time to pick up the Bible?

“Back in the 80s there was no televisions. You had a radio and you had a battery allowance.

“And when the batteries run out, then you had silence if you were in a single cell, or you had your cell mate if you were in a double cell.

“Phones were unheard of.

“At the moment, you got phone, a television and a computer in the cell.

“Back in the day, they didn’t even have toilets in the cell, you had slop out.

“And if something breaks down (now), they’ll come and fix your television quicker than they’ll fix your flooding toilet.

“So I’ve done loads of creative writing while I was inside and back in the 80s, you couldn’t do a bit of bird without someone coming in and shoving Shakespeare at you.”

Some say there is no rehabilitation in prison but you show that there is if it is where you found creative writing…

“Whatever it is you’ve decided you’ve got to do- you decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to sort myself out’ just in the same way you might decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to start knocking off security van boxes’- Whatever it is you decide to do, you will see opportunities around in order to help you do that.

“I decided, ‘Well, I really need to stop coming to jail’.

“I was going to jail for things like violence, which I was never proud of.

“You lose your rag and next thing you know, someone else might have got a caution but because of my criminal record, I get a prison sentence straightaway.

“I wasn’t happy.

“I’m going to be 60 in a few months’ time, but even in my 40s I’d be in jail for some stupid little offence.

“So you sort of think, ‘Right, I’ve got to sort myself out’.

“When you decide you’re going to sort yourself out, you will find opportunities around to help you do it.”

It’s a case of give a dog a bad name, isn’t it? Once you have ‘form’, you’re getting locked up for any little offence.

“It’s not helpful, but I’m very aware that I’ve got to let things go.

“Number one, I’m getting too old to be messing about and people calling police on me.

“And number two is the things that you’re about to get upset about doesn’t matter.

“In the long run, it does not matter.

“I had a situation recently.

“There’s this little organisation and I used to go down to perform on the open mic.

“Every time I put my name down, this guy gave me problems like he didn’t want me to do it.

“And then on the very last one when I got there he goes, ‘Oh, you weren’t selected this time’.

“So I said, ‘But you took my 20 quid’.

“All of a sudden, this guy’s offering to fight me and wants to go outside.

“Now I’m very fit and healthy but I am going to be 60 at the end of the year, and I do get sciatica.

“This young man was about 26, ultra fit, you know what I mean?

“Whether I can take this guy or not, it was just a clear thing to me, ‘Why the hell do I want to fight this guy? Why do I even want to shout at him?’ I didn’t. I just turned around and walked away.”

Violence is a theme of the play in that it is one of the things that breaks the monotony, isn’t it? “That’s the thing about jail.

“It is mostly boring, monotonous, with the occasional sporadic burst of violence just so that you don’t get too bored.

“And then if you use gear inside, then you’re going to be dealing with that side of things because if you’re not paying your debts, then the currency is violence.

“Friday’s canteen day, the day we can get our spends on.

“You heard of Black Friday in the economy? In this jail, it was ‘Black Eye Friday’, because anyone not paying their debts would get one.

“It (violence) has to be quick.

“It’s very rare that you get a very long ruck unless you can find a place in the showers or someone’s cell and then you’ve got to have look outs and that, so stuff had to be done quick, which meant severe aggression.”

When were you first locked up? “I first got banged up when I was 14.

“They put me in this place for about two weeks because I took a hammer to school.

“Someone saw it and then a teacher said to me, ‘If somebody attacks you, would you use that hammer to protect yourself?’

“They asked me this in front of the copper and I was too thick to realise that I was incriminating myself.

“I said, ‘Of course I would’.

“So I got a taste of it when I was 14 and then, as I said, the older boys in the home had gone to detention centre and borstal.

“I couldn’t wait to get my dose of ‘short, sharp shock’ as they called it.

“On the first day, I was dragged around by my afro.

“On the second day, they shaved my afro off.

“But I got through it.

“I think one of the things that we are on this world to do is to overcome our fears.

“The fear of prison was put into me when I was young.

“Even my mum said to me, ‘You’re gonna end up in prison’.

“So I became not scared of it.

“I decided that this was something that I wanted to face and get through.”

So you were in and out of prison for…? “The best part of my life, I’ve got 75 convictions: Violence, theft, drugs, weapons and just lawlessness, all petty.

“When I say petty, you can’t say violence is petty and I mean, you can’t say weapons are petty but the longest sentence I’ve ever got is four years.”

Ezra is clearly based on you but why did you choose to make Terry an Irish traveller? “They used to have to use this system where they get prisoners to teach other prisoners how to read.

“You’ll be surprised the amount of people in jail who cannot read.

“I’ve always enjoyed reading, especially when I’m in jail, so I was a mentor.

“I had three Irish guys, they were all travellers.

“You get guys who just admit they can’t read.

“Not always but most of the time, I found they were Irish travellers: Gift of the gab, they could come up with riddles, had brilliant memories to tell stories, but couldn’t read.

“And they’ve managed, they’ve developed this coping strategy.

“There were tonnes of Irish people (in prison).

“It seems to me like crime is one of the economies of black people and Irish people more than anyone else.

“After performing the show I’ve had people say to me, ‘Don’t you get a bit nervous about what you’re saying about the Irish people?’

“I’m literally writing a story based on something that happened to me in the 80s.

“A lot of it is fictionalised but all my descriptions of Terry are true. They’re not stuff I’ve made up.

“So the fact that he lived in a caravan, the fact that the parole board took his living circumstances into consideration is not stuff I’m making up, I’m not reinforcing- as it was put to me- a negative stereotype.

“I think that if you get scared of stereotypes, you will not tell stories.

“If you’re going to be careful about, ‘Am I making Irish people look in a bad light?’

“I’m not trying to make them look in a bad light or good light.

“I’m saying that my mate, who I loved, was Terry. I was banged up in a cell with him.”

Aside from people who think you may be reinforcing stereotypes, what sort of reactions do you get? “I get standing ovations, so people love the story.”

Errol now goes into prisons to work with offenders and hopes to bring Something To Take Off the Edge in there.

“I might be doing a bit of a prison talk with the show.

“Some of the themes are literacy, mental health, addiction, religion, press ups,” he laughs at the last one.

“I’d love to do that.

“These themes are universal.

“If you haven’t been to the theatre for a while, take a chance on this.

“Tickets are a tenor but- just for your readers- if they put when they’re booking the word EDGE in the promo code, they’ll get tickets for a fiver.

“This is not a money making tool for me, this is for me to put my show out there.

“If somebody’s broke, and they just fancy a night out, turn up at the door, blag it.

“I would have said to all the places where I’m going to anyway, ‘Anyone who comes, don’t turn them away no matter what’.

“I just want people to come and see the show. It’s an hour long, not long enough to get bored.

“And if you don’t like it, come talk to me afterwards. I’ll buy you a pint.”

Something To Take Off the Edge is at Camden Fringe Festival 1- 17 August.
For more information, click here.
List of dates and venues

Aces and Eights: 1 August 9.30pm, 3 August 6.30pm, 4 August 6.30pm
Belsize Community Library: 2 August 7pm, 16 August 7pm, 23 August 7pm 

Hen & Chickens Theatre: 5 August 3pm, 6 August 3pm 

Canal Cafe Theatre: 7 August 7.30pm, 8 August 7.30pm 

2Northdown: 9 August 8.45pm, 23 August 8.45pm 

Rosemary Branch Theatre: 10 August 8pm,11 August 8pm,12 August 8pm 

Museum of Comedy: 13 August 7pm, 27 August 7pm 

The Queer Comedy Club: 18 August 9.30pm, 19 August 9.30pm, 27 August 8.30pm 

The Hope Theatre: 24 August 7pm, 25 August 7pm, 26 August 7pm 

You can get tickets here.

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