Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Devised by women from HMP Youth Offender Institution, with writer Catarina McHugh and director Laura Lindow, Key Change tells the stories of women in prison. The play originally toured to male prisons. Key Change was named the North East’s best devised piece by British Theatre Guide in 2014. As the women who devised the play are unable to leave prison, the play uses a cast of professional actors.
We begin with an argument between four women at the phones in the prison. The argument becomes violent. By the time we return to this moment much later in the play, we can understand the context more clearly and sympathise with the frustrations felt on all parts, if not the violence.
In between these two scenes we hear about the women’s lives and relationships both inside prison and, crucially, before they got there, through direct address storytelling and scenes enacted by the cast. Staging is deliberately minimal, using chairs and masking tape to give us a sense of the layout of the prison, its surrounding high walls and claustrophobically small cells.
This is theatre with a strong commitment and purpose. This doesn’t mean it has a ‘message’ or is preachy. Far from it. It is terrific and engaging storytelling, created with a strong desire to give voice to women whose voices are rarely heard and need to be listened to. I found this passion refreshing and the play in turn funny, heartbreaking, beautiful and very well structured and paced.
The actors are very well developed and convincingly cast, with each character well defined and differentiated. But above that, they work so well as a team on stage in this energetic play, that they give a fitting impression of being women thrown together in close quarters who know each other very well.
There are many hard-hitting moments, often wrapped in very funny dark humour. There is also an element of surprise through expertly directed moments of metatheatricality allowing us to draw back and get a sense of the women actually creating the play. And intermittently, the cast break into beautiful movement set pieces, such as flying paper birds – an image of freedom within their restricted lives.
The play is full of humanity, and as it is devised by the women themselves, it provides some strong insights into experiences such as heroin addiction and surviving abuse and how it happens that some prisoners end up in a ‘revolving door’ pattern after they leave. The focus is, sensibly, hardly at all on the crimes the women committed, though it certainly doesn’t paint them as blameless. Rather, it shines a light onto some common issues affecting women who end up in prison, whilst being clear this does not excuse their crimes.
The programme notes that the UK has one of the highest rates of female imprisonment in Western Europe. Over 50% of women report having suffered domestic abuse, one in three has been sexually abused and nearly 40% of women leave prison homeless.
A few years ago, I interviewed some young women in YOI’s for a documentary and based on my own experiences, I found this play, its cast and the women’s experiences utterly convincing. This is important and urgent theatre. See it if you can. It was playing to a packed audience when I saw it and their response was hugely appreciative.