Written by Paddy Campbell, directed by Amy Golding
At Northern Stage, Newcastle until 4th March
What happens when a young person leaves care? The only life they’ve ever really known. They don’t know how or why they got there, or who they really are, but it was in care that they survived.
And then they turned 18.
There is no gradual transition from child to adult for care leavers. It happens at the flick of a switch. No sooner have they cracked open their first legal can of Oranjeboom and they’re catapulted into an unfamiliar and lonely new world.
Leaving is verbatim theatre – a form of documentary theatre based on real experiences and transcripts. Writer Paddy Campbell (Wet House, Day of the Flymo) and director, Amy Golding (of the award-winning theatre company, Curious Monkey) are giving these young people a chance to be heard. In their very own words.
In fact, they’re giving the sector a chance to be heard, as the play is based on interviews not only with care leavers, but also with support workers, social workers, teachers and MPs. It’s a fully rounded view of the system – with experiences that are good, bad, tragic, funny, frustrating, inspiring and above all, true.
We meet Keira (played by the mesmerising Rosie Stancliffe), a young mum with a highly chaotic background. In fact, chaos is so normal in Keira’s world that a bipolar diagnosis is neither here nor there. When discussing her illness she finds more significance in the fact that she was prescribed the exact same medication as Robin Williams than in the challenges she faces in managing her symptoms.
It seems that when life throws so much uncertainty at you these shifting mood swings tend to blend into the noisy background. I guess it’s hard to believe that Keira ever experiences calming or consistent moments. New baby, new home, new social worker, new diagnosis, new medication….If she didn’t take it all in her stride, it would surely break her.
Same goes for another character, a young lad (played by the brilliant Luke Maddison) who recalls his experience of having a heart attack aged just 24 so casually that it makes his care worker laugh out loud.
The entire ensemble is outstanding. Jackie Lye’s headteacher and care worker are both strong and humorous, while her portrayal of Caroline, a woman who spent much of her life in care, shifts quickly from vulnerable to angry – possibly later explained by her (also) nonchalant revelation that she too has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder- not that she bothers taking the tablets, so she tells us.
Actor, Matt Howden, takes us into the world of several sector professionals – one of whom touchingly recalls the story of a young asylum seeker who fled from danger, found hope in the care system but was sadly deported as soon as he turned 18 – travelling back to the very place he experienced the trauma that no doubt kick-started his increasingly severe mental health problems.
While the performance is already incredibly authentic, the sound (by the talented Roma Yagnik) brings the audience closer still, allowing us to enter not only the environments that the young people find themselves in, but also their minds. There’s a particularly impactful scene where a young apprentice worker (another brilliant performance – by Kate Okello) remembers her own time in care.The audience are equipped with headphones to create a binaural experience of sound, and the choreographed movement performed by the cast helps us enter the apprentice’s loud and chaotic mind as she feels out of control. Her every step, every decision, is critiqued, discussed, prodded and poked by a whole host of involved parties as she sits there in the midst of the noise. At least that’s how it felt at the time. And now, as an apprentice, she has the privilege of seeing both sides of the story – and is able to reflect on those times with appreciation and empathy.
Leaving is a touching, funny, unsettling and inspiring experience. You really feel as though the young people, the professionals, are right there with you. The actors’ use of headphones in this form of verbatim theatre (known as recorded delivery) made me sceptical, and I really wasn’t sure how I would feel about it before the show opened, but in fact, it didn’t detract at all. So if I had to offer criticism, I guess all I could say is that this play is uncomfortably authentic. But nobody should be ignorant to these issues. And there’s plenty of light humour to keep you going.
But not only that, we left knowing that these young people, no matter how tough life was, still had hopes and dreams. And my hope is that they’re out there today making incredible lives for themselves.