Devised with inmates from HMP Low Newton, Open Clasp attempts to refocus perceptions of women in prison with Key Change. Five women tell their story, equipped with only a boombox, a few chairs and four rolls of masking tape, in this honest though disjointed production. Writer Catrina McHugh worked with inmates to ensure that every element of the characters’ lives was something that had happened to one of them, creating a rawness in the play’s tone. The play takes an Orange is the New Black format with the women introducing their stories in addition to the main narrative, which sees the women rehearsing a performance.
Key Change begins with an uncontextualised moment of violence. Later, we’ll see this scene again, this time woven into the plot in a moment of clarity. Whilst sympathetic to the women’s situation, they’re not presented as blameless. Instead, nuances of character are quickly introduced by the ensemble cast and remain throughout. Jessica Johnson gives a powerful performance as the resilient but vulnerable Angie, whilst the other cast members are similarly frank under Laura Lindow’s direction. Regrettably, women of colour are all but eliminated from the world of the play and would have been a welcome addition.
Although the script and cast are auspicious features of the production, it feels disjointed overall. Scenes are often disconnected and towards the end of the play information about minor characters is released and left without exploration. Attempts at physical theatre appear forced and saccharine within a terrifically truthful play. However, there is a beautiful moment as the characters build the world of their performance; using masking tape to mark the boundaries of the prison in a moment juxtaposing entrapment with their playful freedom to create.
Key Change originally toured men’s prisons to great acclaim. Many of the men had no idea of their actions could have affected the female prisoners’ lives. The women are presented as survivors, beaten down by misogyny, abuse and a lack of financial independence. I’ve noticed a theme running through several plays at this year’s Fringe: providing a platform for the voiceless to speak out. Using an engaging script and sincere direction, Open Clasp allows some of the UK’s most marginalised women to be heard.
Key Change is playing at Summerhall (Venue 26) until 30 August (no performances on 19 or 26). For more information, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.