The story of Key Change began its journey in Low Newton prison in County Durham, where it was devised by writer Catrina McHugh and director Laura Lindow in conjunction with women prisoners. It was commissioned to tour male prisons before its positive response made them realise what they’d created was really hitting home. It has since gone on to enormous success at the Edinburgh Fringe (winning The Carol Tambor ‘Best of Edinburgh’ award in 2015), Broadway (receiving the prestigious New York Times Critics’ Pick) and even being performed in the Houses of Parliament as part of a campaign for alternative sentences for women who commit non-violent crimes. Its current tour included a three-night stint at Live Theatre to a packed audience. The play documents the shared experiences of women in prison where they show us the reality of prison life, along with their backstories and experiences of domestic abuse and drug addiction.
The set simply consisted of chairs and some masking tape which the women used to create the sense of a confined and controlled space. There were some clever bits of physical theatre and sound effects which take the audience from one sequence to the next; for instance, the eerie slam of a chair rams home the poignancy and pain of a particular moment. There was even a moment where a chair was thrown a little too enthusiastically by a cast member and it was thanks to the quick reaction of an audience member that a collision was averted. Apart from this the production went very smoothly and you could feel the actors capturing the vitality of the real-life stories they were playing. The vulnerability behind the bravado is endearingly apparent, particularly with Angie (played by Jessica Johnson) whose dependence on drugs is heart-breaking to watch. Lucy (played by Cheryl Dixon) will be the most accessible character for most women, with it being easy to understand how she fell into crime and her desperation after her experiences with domestic abuse. As well as playing the prisoners, the cast members also take on secondary roles as partners and children. This emphasised the shared nature of what many women prisoners have gone through, as well as making it clear that this is the women’s own story, told from their own perspective. There is an interesting scene where Lucy’s children visit her in prison and the other actors play their inner thoughts, exposing all the painful things unsaid. You hear the inevitable resentment from the older child whose been left to look after everything and watch as Lucy struggles to connect to the children she’s left behind.
It was refreshing to see the narrative was not overly romanticised, in contrast to say – the still great – Orange is the New Black can be with its more fantastical elements. Every moment of happiness, even the friendship between Lucy and Angie, is tempered by the women’s sense of realism, particularly the way they talk about the ‘revolving door’ experience of certain inmates. One similarity to the TV show, however, is its sense of humour. You get the sense that the laddish-type banter between the women is what really keeps them sane in the prison environment. They use humour as both a defence mechanism and as a way of connecting with one another. While undoubtedly a gritty narrative, it is this underlying friendship which brings a glimmer of optimism.
All-in-all, it was a very admirable production which manages to create empathy without ramming its point down the audience’s throat. Its high sense of realism and its basis on real-life experiences ensure the story stays with you long after you leave the theatre.