don't forget the birds

Catrina McHugh
Open Clasp Theatre Company and Live Theatre co-production
Live Theatre, Newcastle
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Four years ago Open Clasp’s Key Change gave theatre audiences a harrowing but touching picture of life in a women’s prison, HMP YOI Low Newton. Based on a play about their own stories devised by a group of women in the prison which they performed to others, it was adapted for performance by professional actors and this professional version was a major hit, touring the UK, including the Edinburgh Fringe, and going on to New York.

It ended with the four women leaving the prison, walking out into the sunshine about to meet their waiting families.

don’t forget the birds begins where Key Change ends: Abigail Byron and her brother are waiting to meet their mother, Cheryl, as she leaves prison on licence. The play not only follows the process of Cheryl and Abigail becoming mother and daughter again but it also takes us back to life before prison.

And it is very different to Key Change for there are no professional actors here, channelling the thoughts, feelings and experiences of other people. For on the stage in front of us are Cheryl and Abigail Byron themselves, talking directly to us, recollecting—indeed, reliving—what they experienced at the time of Cheryl’s release and that period of getting to know each other again.

There are external things—experiencing the harshness of the Job Centre and problems with the tag she has to wear—but most of the focus is on Cheryl’s adjustment to life after prison and both women’s adjustment to each other.

What writer Catrina McHugh did was to interview each woman separately, then create a script based on those words. Neither knew the other’s viewpoint until the first reading of that script.

The result is a moving, heart-warming piece of… What? Difficult to say, for here real life and theatre merge. It’s complicated by the fact that Cheryl, who comes from a family of performers, was a professional dancer, singer and model, with TV and live appearances to her credit, and Abigail is a keen amateur performer, involved in stage schools since the age of 7 and appearing in major amateur productions at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House.

But this, of course, is part of who they are and it certainly feels as though, instead of leading to artifice, this performance experience enables them to share their deepest feelings with the audience so much more effectively.

But they are not professional actors and there are moments when one or other slips up and the other helps out or they just grin at each other and at the audience, drawing us in, making us part of their relationship.

There are moments, too, when the movement (courtesy of Mona McCarthy) communicates the depths of their feelings more effectively that words ever could, and there was one really moving moment which echoes an almost iconic moment from Key Change when actor Christina Berriman Dawson, watched with longing in her eyes by Jessica Johnson, makes a flying bird shape above their heads with her hands—a moment of great significance in both pieces.

Laura Lindow’s direction is, as ever, sensitive, working on our emotions, enabling us to share the two women’s story. Yes, story—singular, for the process of the play is to share with us how two stories merge to form one.

The immediate standing ovation at the end—not ones and twos but the majority of the audience rising as one—was a clear indication of the power of the piece.

Open Clasp has done it again!

don’t forget the birds tours to Battersea Arts Centre from 27 November to 1 December.

Peter Lathan