Sending desks flying across a classroom, they aimed blows at their victim, now writhing on the floor between the desks. The intensity of the violence was breathtaking. But this wasn't for real; these were 15 and 16-year-old boys at Hindley remand prison near Manchester, taking part in their weekly drama course.
Once their improvisation was over, they returned to their awkward, lethargic pose. Debbie Nash, head of Hindley's education service, says the boys presented the scene, an armed robbery on a post office, unrehearsed. "School boys who end up here often think they are the best thing in the criminal world. Through drama we try to work through this aggression."
In another scene, two bodies lay slumped against the classroom wall. Other inmates were asked to guess what might be happening. Could it be a refugee camp? Were they plague victims in India? Drunks? Near enough. The bodies sat up and told their group that their drinks had been spiked at a warehouse party and they were suffering the consequences. Was it right to spike drinks? Was that the sort of thing they might do? A stilted discussion followed.
With a high proportion of prisoners on remand for drugs-related offences, the theme was pertinent. Jonathan, 18, who is on remand for drugs offences, feels drama gives prisoners a chance to mature. "They can think about why they are here and the way they behave. Depending on how they're feeling, it might help them see the other side."
Drama at Hindley is intended to focus on offending behaviour and was introduced as a response to a critical report by Lord Justice Tumim, the chief inspector of prisons, which highlighted the level of bullying evident at the prison.
In many prisons, the traditional way of dealing with bullying is by isolating the victim for his or her own protection. Hindley, however, is now trying to develop an anti-bullying culture, which Richard Crouch, the prison's governor, admits is a "slow and painful process".
Drama, he says, plays an imaginative part in that process - and is having some success. "There has been a significant reduction in non-accidental injury, incidents of self-harm or of people seeking segregation for their own protection.
"While they are here we have to make sure prisoners spend their time as constructively as possible. We cannot just put them away in cold storage. Locking people up in cells is the easiest option."
A measure of the prison authority's commitment to drama is the inclusion of a purpose-built drama studio in one of the wings being refurbished. Of 230 male prisoners at Hindley, aged between 15 and 21, 130 opt for full-time education, a mixture of general national vocational qualifications and basic adult education. Seventy of those choose drama, now offered as part of the core programme, for up to six hours a week.
There is a high turnover of prisoners. On a typical day there may be 45 new arrivals, while 50 leave for court or for prisons elsewhere. Few stay at Hindley for more than three months - but Debbie Nash believes that is time enough for drama to have some effect on behaviour.
Although Hindley's education programme is provided by City College, Manchester, drama staff are trained through Theatre in Prison and Probation (TIPP), an arm of Manchester University's drama department. Debbie Nash says staff have to be tough and energetic, and capable of breaking down barriers immediately.
"There are so many layers you have to peel away with these boys before you can start to have any success. I should say about 90 per cent of them come from unstable backgrounds and few have attended school beyond the age of 13. For many, Hindley is their first time inside, but not the first time they've offended or been charged.
"They get a buzz from getting away with crime; it replaces their boredom. Many of them don't really want to be criminals, but they don't know how to be anything else."
Debbie Nash is now evaluating the drama offered at both Hindley and at Styal, a women's prison in Cheshire, and the effect it has on criminal attitude.
At Hindley, most of the time is spent improvising violence and looking and dealing with negative responses to everyday situations.
"We let them tell us what they do through drama. Take domestic situations. If the wife hasn't got the dinner on the table then that's a major offence for some of these lads.
"So we look at why they might smack their wives for not having dinner ready when they demand it. We might get one of them to play the wife.
"That's the way to start them thinking about other people, that other people might have problems too."
The drama at Hindley is based on the work of Augustus Boal, a Brazilian who wrote about the theatre of the oppressed, about finding ways for the underclasses to tell the story of their lives. His work is a growing influence among drama therapists.
"If they can do this without inhibition," Debbie Nash says, "if they can do it without policemen in their heads, then we can begin to examine the reasons why they do things and start the process of change."
The drama sessions employ a variety of games like "Sculptures", where prisoners are asked to adopt the pose of a footballer, fireman or prostitute, for example. As an introduction to the course they might play "Do like, don't like", a game where they are required to stand up, name themselves, one thing they like, and one thing they don't.
Debbie Nash says some boys get embarrassed at having to move and do things which "break down that facade of the big, hard thug. When you play games, the little boy can come out, the vulnerable side, the bit that can smile and cry. We have to teach them how to smile. We have to teach them that being a boy is acceptable. Many have always behaved as adults, hanging about on street corners.
"We have to approach and dismantle the way they actually think about things. Without that, prison education is an expensive waste of time. What's the point in teaching them to add up and read and write if they are still going to go out and bash old ladies over the head."
TIPPCentre, co Department of Drama, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL. Tel: 061-275 3047.