“I am not a victim. I am a survivor.” Used and abused by men since childhood, the women in Key Change have grown up damaged, emotionally fragile and even disfigured. This carefully nuanced piece of theatre is written by and for the women society overlooks and men often take advantage of, based on the real-life experiences of female inmates in HMP Low Newton. However, playwright Catrina McHugh goes further and creates a play that recognises the commonality in everyone’s suffering and everyone’s story.
Along with this, her script conveys a profound sense of empathy for the victims. Sorry, not victims, survivors. Because Key Change does not encourage the audience to pity the women. This is shrewd, as the act of pitying implies that the prisoners are beneath the rest of society. Instead, these women are strong, powerful and inspirational in finding strength and security in their prison community. They also have a sense of belonging, a regimented safety that is distinctly absent from other parts of their lives. The women presented discover the best in themselves whilst inside – never institutionalised, they count down the days until they can return to the world, confident and full of hope that things are on the up.
McHugh’s brief but punchy tale gives the audience an insight into the moment that brings two inmates, Lucy (Cheryl Marie Dixon) and Angie (Jessica Johnson), together. They have been confined in solitary for fighting. The brawl developed from an insignificant moment when one cut in front of the other to make a phone call. Something seemingly so simple blows all out of proportion because tempers are heightened when people are caged and the importance of these rare, brief touches with the outside world is heightened. Through this unremarkable skirmish, complex personalities and friendships are revealed.
Through flashbacks, fellow inmates and friends Kelly (Christina Berriman Dawson) and Kim (Judi Earl) jump in to add their two-pence worth like jack rabbits bouncing between characters with a subdued, child-like glee. Kelly, the younger of the two, is the more energetic – she stirs the pot and incites the others to mischief; Kim is the wiser, more world-weary counterpart, grounding their wishes to fly off into the sunset.
In Key Change, events can pause while characters stop to analyse and explain. But the audience is aware of how fictional this is aspect is. The performance space is marked with masking tape, whilst Lorraine (Kate McCheyne) sits in a corner operating the lights and sound in between reading Closer magazine. It’s low budget, but high impact. And whilst it might look make-believe, it feels oh so real.
The simplicity of Key Change is in many ways its greatest strength – nothing shields from the emotional onslaught. Whether dealing with the death of a newborn or huddled on the floor as the result of domestic abuse, McHugh’s characters ultimately come across with such accuracy because, of course, they are real; they do exist. The five stories presented also hint at the lives of a multitude of other women, locked away and removed from society to be forgotten and swept under the carpet.
Key Change is on until 26th October 2016 at the BAC and then touring. Click here for more details.