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Review of Key Change at Battersea Arts Centre

Key Change Cast
l-r Judi Earl Cheryl Dixon Jessica Johnson & Christina Berriman Dawson in Key Change

This is a show made to express the voices of women prisoners. Being created with the assistance of women from HMP Low Newton, in 2015 it won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award with a US premiere Off-Broadway, New York.

There are five performers. Four of them with a distinct persona, the likeable, feminine one, the druggie one, the grandmother figure and the one who always plays the male parts. The fifth plays Lorraine, who sits in the corner, occasionally pretending to be a child and otherwise reading the magazine, Closer.

It is the likeability of these prisoners that initially warms the audience. We learn they count the time they have left in incarceration by the number of sleeps. Just as we might do to Christmas. From that first point of connection, we are brought to an understanding of their individual pasts, their preoccupations, their hopes for the future. Mostly having a normal life.

Dysfunctional relationships with cruel and feckless men are viscerally demonstrated on stage. Christina Berriman Dawson as Kelly is fantastic at summoning a male, dominating energy on stage.

Lucy, played by Cheryl Marie Dixon so sympathetically, being feminine and lovely, was left without enough money, and small children to feed, tempted to steal. One of the other women, the repeat offender, was imprisoned, we learn, for stealing 360 pounds.

It is when the piece describes these women as mothers and even, grandmothers, it becomes excellent, ramming the question home whether locking them behind walls is the right thing to do. They are denied access to twenty-first technology, mobile telephones or tablets, to make their calls home where there are problems wanting their attention, relying instead on scant, rationed time using a receiver on the wall telephones. When one doesn’t work, it’s a disaster.

The prevalence of drugs in prison, perhaps a mystery to those outside, is explained as a need for escape. These women are looking to be unconscious. It’s a relief.

Jessica Johnson absolutely convinces in her performance as Angie, the hard, most humorous one. When we see Angie with her mother, who treats her with no respect, wants her to be different, will not allow her to have her children back ever, we understand her better.

Judi Earl, plays Kim, the grandmother with four children, eight grandchildren and a husband with charming mischief.

What is intriguing is how little this piece devised by women in prison pays attention to their warders. They’re there but are robotic, without noticeable personality. On the outside of the community, the one that matters to the prisoners, theirs. Metaphors of birds are used repeatedly, to particularly lovely effect when attached to the letters the women receive from home.

Are these women different for having been locked up? What happens to their children, the next generation, locked up in poverty and suffering too? Why are the facilities in prison so limited? Can we not, as a society, find a better way to deal with girls and mothers and grandmothers than this? These are important questions, brought to our attention in this show with humour, intelligence and sensitivity.

4 stars
Review by Marian Kennedy

The prison van, fences high, a Magpie. One for sorrow. Snatched the babies. The mother fought, but it was too big, and flew too high.

Key Change is a raw and illuminating portrayal of women in prison, devised with women in HMP Low Newton and originally toured to male prisoners.

Winner of The Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award 2015, Key Change premiered in New York in 2016 and was selected as a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

24th to 26th October 2016
Open Clasp Theatre Company

Devised with women in HMP Low Newton. Written by Catrina McHugh, and directed by Laura Lindow. 
Age Recommendation: 13+
Running Time: 55 mins


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