Key Change Review: Women In Prison

“Key Change,” we’re told, is a theater piece “devised” by women inmates in a prison in the north of England called Her Majesty’s Prison Low Newton, although a playwright, Catrina McHugh, is listed in the credits, and the show is performed by a cast of five professional actresses. Open Clasp, the company who created it, was founded in 1998 as a theater “with a female gaze,” whose aim is to effect social change.

Originally intended for audiences of male inmates, it was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where critics praised it as raw, heartfelt and honest, and it won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, which annually funds a New York production for a worthy Edinburgh show.

That is why it is now at the 4th Street Theater, through January 31.

The playwright has said that the aim of “Key Change” is to show how the women are often victims more than they are offenders, and it’s certainly effective in convincing us. The women talk about — in effect reenact — their lives leading up to their imprisonment: They are mistreated children who become teenage mothers with harshly abusive spouses and then escape into drug addiction.

“I never thought I would end up here,” says Kim (Judi Earl)

Angie (Jessica Johnson) tells the audience: “She’s got four kids, eight grandchildren and…”

“…two great grandchildren,” Kim adds. “They live with me, well their dad, his lass and their granddad. ‘Cause I’m here.”

Dressed in drab prison garb, the performers use little more than masking tape and pieces of paper to re-create life behind bars. Their gracefulness at times reaches a level of physical poetry (in other words, dance.)

The problem I had with “Key Change” is that it felt like an hour-long series of theater games and exercises, the sort that companies engage in during rehearsals as warm-up or as part of the process of coming up with a finished piece.

Some of them work fine, taken individually. In visits from the children or the mother of various of the inmates, we hear both what they each say, and what they’re actually thinking, e.g.

Mam: Have you got an address yet for your release?
Thought: You’re not coming to stay with me

Angie: No not yet. I was thinking I might come and stay with you
Thought: Please, please let me come home

Mam: We’ll see
Thought: No way are you coming to stay with me. You’re not robbing off me again!

No theatrical exercise in the show is in itself  intolerable, not even such now-standard “cutting-edge” approaches as a slow-motion dance-like fight, or some meta-theatrical comments by the inmates about the show they’ve created. But all the noodling around, especially a pile-on of staccato group dialogue and quick little scenes with instantly appearing and disappearing ancillary characters, undermines our ability to follow specific characters.  It’s as if the theater company felt that telling a straightforward story of any individuals would be too conventional, and not make the political points clearly enough, so must be sacrificed for the greater good of the cool stagecraft and the important social issue. The result overall is a feeling that the professional theater makers devised this play, and the women in prison were not given control over their own stories.

Key Change

at 4th Street Theater


  • Angie – Jessica Johnson
  • Lucy – Cheryl Dixon
  • Kelly – Christina Berriman Dawson
  • Kim – Judi Earl
  • Lorraine – Victoria Copeland
Creative Team:
  • Devised by women in HMPYOI Low Newton
  • Writer: Catrina McHugh
  • Director: Laura Lindow
  • Lighting Designer: Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn
  • Composer & Sound Designer: Roma Yagnik
  • Creative Producer: Jill Heslop
  • Stage Manager: Kate McCheyne
  • Deputy Stage Manager: Victoria Copeland
  • Original choreography by: Holly Irving
  • Movement support by: Holly ‘KiJjala’ Rose

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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