Sweet Charity Project Report

November 19, 2018


More will be added to this page in the coming weeks.

Pimlico Opera’s annual prison project is well-known and has taken 60,000 members of the public into prisons. The work began in 1989 but it wasn’t until 1991 that we did our first collaboration with prisoners.
There were seven Sweet Charity performances (to which prisoner families came) and two more for prisoners and prison staff. In total, around 2,000 people saw the show.
For inmates, the project is an extremely taxing process; the production standards are high and what is required of the inmates is beyond anything they have done before. They must be totally focused, concentrated, line-perfect, work as a coherent team and well-behaved. Their offences ranged from stealing cheese (not a first offence) to a double life sentence. Many were involved in tragic incidents in which a person died.

The project changes the audience, the prison and, of course, the prisoners themselves who find things inside themselves they didn’t know existed. Most of them say that it is the best thing that has happened in their lives.
The first prisoner testimonial is from Emma whose sister came to a performance. Both Emma and her sister were in care. Emma has two children and one has been taken into care; the other has, fortunately, been given to Emma’s sister. Emma is 43 and wrote: “When I started I was shy with little confidence. I have anxiety, depression and leg ulcers due to being on heroin since I was 13 years old. I have been in and out of jail since I was 16. This is my longest sentence and I have tried to do my best working in the kitchens, doing recovery course. The proudest thing is my participation with Pimlico Opera. I feel loved, I feel wanted, I feel happy, I don’t feel depressed, I feel I have a future and I like the person I am today.” She goes on to say she is going to try hard to have a better life.

Further testimonials will be add to this page (audience, prison staff and prisoners).


Carol: “I had a nervous breakdown on the outside and consequently lost custody of my precious son. My life was in a terrible mess and I was overwhelmed with sadness, grief and loss. Taking part in this amazing show has been an absolute privilege . . . It has renewed in me a desire to work hard and succeed.”

Victoria took herself off methadone: “I have become substance-free, I speak daily with my children and family . . . my potential although not realized has been awakened. I have a yearning to better myself as I realise I can achieve so much more. I know I can be disciplined, helpful and considerate. . . I can look people in the eye now”.

Diane has spent her 30s in prison and is nearing the end of her sentence: “It has filled me with inspiration and love for the performing arts which I had when I was a young teenager. I want to do a qualification . . . To use a line from Sweet Charity: I know what I need to do”.

Fen, from China: “Acting and dancing is really out of my comfort zone. Through the whole time I am 100% committed, I work hard, I always practice when I have spare time back in the House Block, I integrate better with other fellow residents, prison staff. I believe our prisoners and prison staff need this project.”

Lizzi participated in a Pimlico Project in 2011 and is serving a very long sentence. She has huge intelligence and maturity and has much to give the world at large. She supported the younger prisoners. “I feel alive when I am learning new dances and new lines. Pimlico teaches us to push ourselves through our fears and has given me a new lease of life”.

Tina wrote the most wonderful letter of thanks and in it she wrote about her life including the following: “The project has made me shine inside and out. I have not been very lucky in life but a lot of it is due to my choices . . . I had to fight to become the strong unattached emotionless person I am. Being in the play has given me a root to grow on, given me courage and a bit of self-worth . . . I have to learn how to feel again and fully accept and take responsibility. . . I want to feel alive . . . I am sorry for what happened and I have so much remorse but it is what it is.”

Shelley confessed that she spent the first two weeks messing around but then decided to change. “As time continued I started to feel more immersed in the story and how I could seriously contribute to that. I grew in self-confidence and I also felt it important to compliment others . . . I have performed many times in my dreams where I put on a good show and people enjoy what I do. Now that has become a reality. I want to do something I can excel at. I can be lazy-ish but if I find something I’m interested in I have the strongest work ethic and willingness to succeed. So looking towards a brighter future. I am extremely grateful.”

Dhonna: “It has reinforced the idea that regardless of my physical difficulties I am able to achieve great things through hard work. It being my first time in prison, the project will ensure I truly never judge a book by its cover.”

Mandy arrived at the prison terrified and threw herself into the project. Mandy’s letter of thanks included very sad facts about her past and she says: “My current circumstances and crime are not down to an addiction. I am about to embark on an intense psychological journey to address long-standing issues. Whilst participating I have not felt the urge to hurt myself and the marks on my arms have had a chance to heal. I have tried to remain a supportive calm influence for the others and so proven to myself that I can do good things.”

Kerry is at a very difficult moment in her life and there were princess tantrums. She had the largest prisoner role because she has an amazing voice and stage presence. She wrote “Thank you for your patience and understanding and seeing the potential in us Cell Sisters. I feel blessed that you have created a platform where I and other prisoners can express ourselves and truly heal. I am used to keep things in and running away from anything when I feel incapable from seeing positive. I always see negative. I’ve been able to take care of my siblings and family under the worst types of pressure. I now believe I did it out of a fear of failure … not love because I can’t even love myself. But this production has helped me to self reflect and find a new respect for myself. Keeping my secrets has almost destroyed me … not a day went where I didn’t feel disgusting. Just worthless to everyone. Now the 7 weeks even incarcerated I see the universe has a plan for me and I feel freer than I have ever done throughout my life. It’s been an honour working with you all”.
Kerry is demonstrating that she has the capacity for reflection and change.

Further testimonials will be added to this page (audience, prison staff and prisoners).

IAN WHITESIDE, Director of the Prison

I have worked in prisons for over 25 years and this was my first experience of being involved in a project between a prison and Pimlico Opera. When, as the prison’s Director,  I was approached to see if I would be interested in hosting Pimlico I said yes thinking this would be beneficial for the women involved. As the project evolved it became apparent just how significant the impact had become. The standards set were high and the residents clearly grew in confidence and ability to meet them.

The inaugural performance’s audience were the residents of the prison and this initiated a wave of positive interest in the project. That wave continued to grow with hundreds of members of the public and staff coming to see the show.

The feedback from the women involved include comments such as “this is the single most memorable experience of my life. it has been a platform and an opportunity for me to explore something I’ve always wanted to do” whilst the public have been unanimous in their positive feedback.

Importantly for me the impact on the prison has also been significant. The prison’s culture has been positively influenced with violent incidents reducing, staff have  been reminded of the potential of the women in their care whilst senior stakeholders have made comments such as “the impact that it has made on all the women is outstanding and I am sure that many of the residents thought the same.”

The partnership with Pimlico Opera cannot be underestimated. It is the single most positive project within a prison I have ever been involved with and I wholeheartedly look forward to working with them again!

Julie Bowell, Deputy Director

I had the privilege of working for the Household of HRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall for over five years. I helped organise many events – gala dinners, receptions and conferences – in many of the Royal residences. Not one of these projects were as rewarding and far-reaching as having the opportunity to work on the Pimlico Opera production of Sweet Charity at HMP Bronzefield.

I knew from the beginning this event would have a positive impact on residents and staff, but could not have imagined the far wider, outstanding effect the performances have left in their wake. I believe, for everyone who was involved with the project, there will be a favourable, lasting impression and that we will be talking about the event for a long time to come. The short, sometimes turbulent, journey, achieved more than can be measured and leaves me with many happy memories and a desire to be involved when Pimlico Opera return for the next production.

Tanvir Hynes, Head of Learning, Skills & Employment

What another amazing production from Pimlico Opera this year with Sweet Charity. Having worked with Pimlico Opera on a previous production, I knew what to expect, but this year, the performance has surpassed all of my expectations. The theatre has impacted on so many people but most importantly the residents. With 17 residents in the cast and 2 supporting back stage, the talent and sheer determination from each of them shone through.

There was something so raw when they sang ‘there’s got to be something better than this’. There was real conviction and hope in their voices and with receiving a standing ovation each night it was clear that their confidence, self-esteem and self-belief had been positively impacted on through this uplifting experience.

One of my most memorable and proud moments was after the first night’s performance having received their first standing ovation; there wasn’t a dry eye when the residents came off stage and it was the realisation that it was for them, for their hard work, for their determination. This drive then pushed them to give stronger performances. This was when we saw their passion, their confidence and their self-belief grow.

As well as the residents on the project, we were able to allow the other residents to watch the performance. The feedback from them has been phenomenal. The residents left the theatre commenting on how it was the best thing they had ever seen. One resident wrote a letter of thanks ‘For 2 hours I felt like a free woman and again a massive thank you, all my problems and issues disappeared whilst watching the show’.

To compliment this, we have received an overwhelming amount of reviews and feedback from visitors, all acknowledging the hard work and dedication that had gone into putting a performance of this magnitude into a prison environment.

It is projects like this that reaffirm why we do the work we do which was complimented by the extraordinarily passionate team put together by Pimlico Opera. Thank you for bringing Sweet Charity to Bronzefield, it has touched so many people.