Key Change is preoccupied with time. Doing time, going back in time, marking time. The female prisoners of HMPYOI Low Newton, with whom Open Clasp devised the show, talk about the number of “sleeps” they have left. They turn back the clock with wishful urgency, reliving the events that put them inside. And they count out the hour they have to talk to us – not half enough time to share their stories.
Those stories—raw, honest, bruising—are told on stage by Open Clasp’s excellent cast of five. At their centre are Jessica Johnson’s swaggering, mouthy Angie and Cheryl Dixon’s overwhelmed first-time offender Lucy, very different personalities with some strikingly similar demons. It is, they mockingly tell us, meant to be “a touching story about two women who meet in prison and become friends”.
Because that’s what we want, isn’t it? The redemptive narrative, the cathartic release. Open Clasp play with that desire, fulfilling and then refusing it. Also problematic is the representation of abuse. One woman insists “I am not a victim, I am a survivor”, yet still the violence is represented and re-represented on stage.
Despite flagging them up, Key Change never quite resolves these issues. What it does do brilliantly is evoke the jagged texture of everyday life in prison. Overlapping voices summon the relentless cacophony, while letters transform into birds that fly hopes and worries over the walls. And through it all there’s a tough, humane sense of humour, challenging preconceptions at every turn.