Devised with female prisoners in HMP Newton in Durham, and designed to tour male prisons to give men a sense of the female experience of custody, Key Change went on to be a deserved hit at the 2015 Edinburgh fringe. I first saw it there, and it has since played both New York and The House of Commons.
Watching the no-frills but effective on-line film of the show while confined to house only heightens the experience, making you all the more aware of the claustrophobia of confinement. The difference, of course, is that we can head outside for a daily walk, and talk on the phone or via the internet to friends and family whenever we want. There is no internet in prison. Waiting to use the phone can create frustration that sparks violence. Key Change balances the quiet inner lives of the women and the overwhelming noise of prison with aplomb.
Key Change concentrates on the experiences of two very different women, Lucy and Angie, who meet inside prison and unexpectedly become friends. But the show, coming straight from the horse’s mouth but scripted with real grace and care by Catrina McHugh, explores not just the experience of prison but also the women’s different routes to ending up in the same place.
Both pregnant when they are still teenagers, for Angie the death of her baby leads to drug addiction while Lucy falls under the spell of boyfriend Paul, suffers post-natal depression and domestic violence and coercion. The show is particularly pertinent at a time when many women find themselves in social isolation with a partner who is also their abuser.
If you just want gritty social realism you can watch EastEnders, but Key Change offers something more in a heightened theatrical experience which has moments of poetry as its lays bare the inner lives of women who in being locked up lose everything and whose children lose them. The heart stutters in the moments during Laura Lindow’s deft staging in which the women receive letters from home. There is a very clever scene during visiting time that shows not just what everyone says out but what they are really thinking.
This is a small fierce gem of a show that presents these women’s lives warts and does it with compassion and a thrilling theatricality. The performances are blazing. Watch, and wonder how it is that we allow so many women to fall between the cracks, and thank your lucky stars that for most of us our current loss of liberty is merely temporary.
You can watch Key Change in full here.