This review was published in December 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.
Five women are on stage, dressed in head-to-toe grey tracksuit. As the lights go down, they jump into violent action. Using tape, they mark on stage the boundaries of their set, squabbling loudly over the dimensions. The energy with which this opening scene begins does not diminish until an hour later when the lights go down and the play is over.
The women are Angie, Lucy, Kim, Kelly and Lorraine, and they are in prison. Devised with help from women in HMP Low Newton, the authenticity of the production is apparent from the start. The five women tell us of how they ended up there, and what life is like once you’re inside. Misled by abusive and manipulative male figures and stifled by their low-quality lives, the women come together in a strange municipality, escaping through hits of ‘gear’.
The play’s impressive script, with punchy and often-hilarious dialogue, is done justice by the quality of direction and acting. Between the five women, a whole host of characters are played – from violent husbands to scared children, prison guards to sympathetic shopkeepers. Key Change is not only a representation of how tough life is in prison, but also of the anxiety and depression which causes many to err, and end up there. The women shown are strong, and more often that not are imprisoned for crimes committed on the behalf of a loved one.
Jessica Johnson and Cheryl Dixon give impressive performances as Angie and Lucy, and the script retells the backstory of how the two women became friends in prison. The conditions of their stories are different, but the same current underlies them – unreliable partners, insufficient support from the state, and a troubled background. Of all places, prison seems the least appropriate for them to end up in.
The performance is high octane, but that is not to say that it is a bunch of women running around on stage swearing and yelling. There are also moments of unnerving quiet, and heart-breaking simplicity. Angie helps Lucy up, as she lies on the floor in her own urine, having peed herself out of terror as her husband beat her.
The production also uses meta-theatre in order to convey the contrast between the tough exterior these women outwardly show, and the isolated thoughts inside. Judi Earl, playing Kim, is upbraided by the others when she ‘accidentally’ gives the prison nurse she is playing a hoity-toity accent. Reluctantly, she repeats the lines in a rough Yorkshire bark. There are also other silly moments, which lighten what would otherwise be an overbearingly intense topic. Angie berates Kim for mucking up again – pointing to tape on the floor she says, “Kim man, you just walked through a wall.” There is also synchronised movement, almost dance, as the women hold letters from home that turn into birds, and flit around the stage.
Key Change is certainly deserving of The New York Times Critics Pick award, and the Carol Tambor ‘Best of Edinburgh’ Award which it won in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Not only is it a fabulous piece of theatre, the production also draws attention to the marginalised voices of women in prison, and the much needed action required on their behalf. If you are ever involved in an argument with someone muddying the ‘point’ of theatre, refer them to this.