As the audience enters and takes their seats in the Gala Theatre, Durham, the five actors are already on stage, chatting, laughing, joking on. A bare stage which none of the characters will leave during the performance. They cannot leave, that’s the whole point. These five women are behind bars, stripped of their own clothes and possessions and outside life – all locked up together, all wearing uniform grey tracksuits, each one trapped in the criminal justice system.
In Key Change, each girl has her own story to tell – a narrative of domestic abuse and gender violence, drugs and crime, as alien to most theatre goers as life in a parallel universe. Yet there are moments of connection as Lucy expresses how much she misses her kids; glimpses of understanding as Kelly digs deep to find the motivation to turn her life around; flashes of recognition as Angie does whatever she has to do to get what she needs.
Devised with women in HMP Low Newton back in 2014, the script includes the moving real-life hopes and dreams, regrets and frustrations of real women in a UK prison today. The dialogue, movement, symbolism (the use of masking tape and paper birds) and superb acting all reveal the vulnerability behind the bravado, the softness behind the aggression, the hurting girl behind the offender in a dramatically powerful way.
There’s a clear agenda here. These women want to be heard. Empathising with these five girls may open the way to a re-evaluation of the criminal justice system for women. But as it’s hard to feel empathy with a narrative so far removed from your own life, this illuminating portrayal of life in prison would have benefited from more exploration of inner struggle and less storyline; more raw expression of deep emotion and less dialogue. Because the universal connection comes in missing kids, in feeling trapped, in seeking escape, in losing all hope, in looking for love. That’s the empathy right there.