Both Jim (CLA Secretary) and I had been waiting for this opening scene for some weeks. We were hoping that we wouldn’t have to write a critical review and pondering how the writer, director and actors had used the stories that some Care Leavers’ Association members (along with a group of young care leavers in Edinburgh) had provided in order to get the issues about leaving care across to a wider audience. After all, this is by far the most high-profile play about leaving care there has ever been. At least three of our members had contributed their own stories about leaving care and the writer and Director had done a lot of research into the subject before they began rehearsals. It was produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and was playing in the main Edinburgh Festival, over the August Bank Holiday week. It will next have three weeks in London.
Although the play tells a number of fragmented stories, overall it is a way of presenting the leaving care experience that we both particularly liked. We each, for different reasons, found it a very moving and powerful piece of theatre. However, it draws from the experiences of younger care leavers and some older care leavers may not see any of their own story in this production. The same is true if you didn’t go though the experience of living alone in shared or solo accommodation when you left care. The ‘away from the kitchen sink’ production style will also appeal to some and not others. Fantasy and dance sequences in a play about care leavers? Not what you would normally expect and we each reacted differently to it. Also, some will be left longing for a traditional beginning, middle and end. However, the Director, Vicky Featherstone, had already explained to us her sense that the leaving care experience didn’t have neat endings or narratives and neither should the play. She was surely right about that.
The play shows the audience snippets of the lives of these young people on the brink of leaving care and starting out in various ‘independence flats’. We see scenes of young people being unable to cope practically and emotionally on their own. The production uses the set and a series of props quite well to show the turmoil that these individuals are experiencing. In one particularly effective scene a series of tables are brought in and placed between a care leaver and a social worker. These gradually expand the distance between the two of them as they speak.
There is also a powerful scene where a care leaver is struggling to prise information out of her mother about how she ended up in care. This is the culmination of a relationship that we see several times in the play. It turns out that she was brought into care after social workers had found her hiding under a table, having been left alone at home as a four-year-old while her mother went on holiday with her new partner. After her mother eventually gives her this much-needed information, the set tilts and the actress slides under the table; a reminder of how she started out in care and where she is then found a few moments later by her social worker.
We also liked the representation of the social worker. On one level it is impossible to get right. As all care leavers know, there are good and bad ones (as in any profession). The actress playing the part showed the difficulties that many social workers face when dealing with heavy case loads and minimal scope. The inadequacy of some of the support she was able to offer was made apparent through the reactions of the care leavers. You could see that in many ways she was out of her depth; trying to help but not able to grasp the complexities of these young people’s struggles.
For myself, another moving scene is right at the end. This shows one young person after another, after another, after another coming through the door of their new home, showing a range of feelings (hesitation, excitement, disappointment, fear amongst many others) then coming to stand centre stage. There are many young people in this scene who have not featured in the play at all, so the stage gets crowded. This final scene represents the huge numbers of young people leaving care and brings home to the audience that there are thousands of care leavers out there in the real world. In the London production (from 8th September), the current plan is to use local care leavers for this final scene of the play.
Both Jim and I thought the play was a very successful attempt to make a theatrical event out of a very complex subject. We did, however, differ on some aspects of the production. Whilst Jim thought it a little confusing at first, not knowing who was who and how they were connected (or not) – it took him about fifteen to twenty minutes to work this out – I thought the fact that these narratives were not open and outright was positive. We both thought that the use of many different stories, rather than focusing in on one or two in depth, gave a good feel for the variety of experiences out there. It also gave a sense of the fact that many children in care and care leavers have lives that inter-mesh with each very profoundly, for good or ill.
We were also both pleased to see the plight of educationally ambitious young people, in a system that often thwarts or ignores their goals, up on stage. This issue is often ignored by the lazy stereotypes in the media and in the minds of too many social work professionals. However, although Jim really liked most of the fantasy and dance sequences, I did not. I thought that they were somewhat out of place and simplified the issues at hand. The sequence featuring restraint techniques, in particular, is likely to generate a variety of responses from care leavers. We both agreed, though, that the humour was appropriate and, importantly, often very funny. This particularly applied to the scenes between a couple of estranged brothers (though their Scottish accents could be tricky). It was essential, at times, to lift the ‘doom and gloom’ effect that any focus on these issues inevitably brings.
The young cast had a big hand in helping to develop the story and this surely helped in imparting a sense that these are young people first, not just care leavers. This comes across in a particularly amusing and engaging ‘party’ scene and in other episodes. You could see that they had each put a lot of work into developing their characters. Although I did not see much of myself in the play, for every character they had on stage I could name at least one person that I had shared a room or a home with that reminded me of them.
Whether you like this play or not you cannot doubt that they clearly have a talented bunch of actors and actresses. The acting was uniformly good and in some cases extremely powerful. It shows that they have used the research they have gained from over 100 care leavers well. We met the Director, Vicky Featherstone, for a drink beforehand and discovered that even the performers had been given summaries of the research to help them to develop their roles. Social workers and other professionals had also been consulted, as well as policy documents. This latter leads to one of the most effective elements of the production, where a leaving care instruction manual for care leavers – often unintentionally funny – is read out by a disembodied voice at various points throughout the play, helping to set the scene.
Overall, it was well worth the trip up to Edinburgh and a play that we would recommend anyone to go and see for themselves. It is on at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith from 8th to 27th September 2008.
- Zachari Duncalf (CLA member)