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Theatre in Review: Key Change (Open Clasp/4th Street Theatre)

Jessica Johnson, Christina Berriman Dawson. Photo: Keith Pattison

It's been quite a season for plays about prison. Whorl Inside a Loop took us inside a writing workshop for male inmates whose prospects for parole were shaky at best. Phyllida Lloyd's production of Henry IV presented Shakespeare as performed by the inmates of a women's prison. Now comes Key Change, which focuses on the hair-raising details of incarceration for a quartet of women.

The main figures are Angie, a drug addict and multiple offender, and Lucy, who has been caught shoplifting. (She needed the money for her kids, having fled her boyfriend after one beating too many.) They are joined by the tough-talking Kelly and the grandmotherly Kim. Jumping between past and present, we learn how they ended up in jail and what life there is like for them. All four ladies take on multiple roles, playing the bad boyfriends, abusive parents, frightened children, and others who populate their misery-filled universes.

There are many striking moments; you could say that Key Change is constructed of nothing but. Angie recalls being thrown out by her mother, her father hissing in her ear, "You heard your mother," while inappropriately passing a hand across her chest. Angie recalls getting high in a monologue that renders the experience of chemical ecstasy with rare precision. Lucy, talking about the boyfriend who neglects and mistreats her, mutters, "No one really understands him like do," a statement uttered with a furtive, almost hopeful glance that is enough to break your heart. A litany of the types of abusive men -- among them the liar, the persuader, the king of the castle, and the dominator -- makes clear how much help the ladies have had in arriving at this dark place. Other lists include the things they miss, including dancing, landscapes, and change, and questions about what the future holds for them.

Key Change also powerfully delineates the grim facts of life behind bars. Angie still manages to get high, having hidden her stash in her private parts; she surreptitiously distributes her merchandise during chapel. Angie has a visit from her eldest daughter, who has been left to raise the two younger girls in her boyfriend's absence; the mother-daughter conversation is translated, with Angie revealing the hurt and fear underneath the daughter's monosyllabic responses. On the day that the ladies are allowed to call home, a Darwinian struggle ensues for control of the three phones, only two of which work. Twice we see an incident that ends with Lucy being savagely beaten.

As written by Catrina McHugh, apparently with the aid of women in Her Majesty's Prison Low Newton, Key Change never forgets that it is a play. More than once the ladies appear with rolls of masking tape, pretending to lay a ground plan. At one point, Kim, adopting a posh accent for one scene, is immediately halted by the others. "I'm doing the nurse," Kim says, by way of explanation. "She's from Yorkshire," another says. Immediately the accent is adjusted with Geordie vowels.

Along these lines, near the end the performers announce that the play is nearly over and it is time for them all to be released. It's only here that one fully realizes that, no matter how striking it is on a moment-to-moment basis, Key Change isn't really a play. It was conceived to tour men's prisons, and the program notes suggest that it did a great deal to convince the members of its target audience of their complicity in dragging down the lives of the women who loved them. But, without some kind of narrative -- and especially given that tacked-on ending -- Key Change, for all its documentary power, ends up feeling oddly insubstantial.

The cast of five is faultless: Cheryl Dixon as Lucy, Jessica Johnson as Angie, Christina Berriman Dawson as Kelly, Judi Earl as Kim, and Victoria Copeland as Lorraine, who acts as a kind of stage manager, who, when not reading gossip rags, occasionally contributes a line or two. All of them treat their words as blunt objects waged against passivity or indifference. Laura Lindow's direction never allows a single slack moment. The meticulously detailed and carefully modulated lighting, by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, is a model of what can be done in low-budget circumstances with a handful of instruments.

In the end, however, Key Change remains a piece that, for all its harrowingly rendered observations, exists mostly as a kind of tract, an argument designed to enlighten others. It certainly performs that task, even as one leaves the theatre wishing one had seen a real play.--David Barbour

(19 January 2016)

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