Review by Hannah Wilkin
Image: Luke Maddison by Mark Slater
If I had to describe Leaving in one word I’d choose ‘real’.
Leaving looks at what it’s like for young people in the UK to leave the care system. ‘Adulting’ is a concept that many of us laugh about as we struggle to keep on top of the washing up, get to bed on time and not burn pizza. Imagine being surrounded by care workers and social workers from an early age who pour a lot of time and care into you and then on the day you turn eighteen having to look after yourself on your own. Imagine suddenly being faced with rent, bills, looking for work and feeling as though you have no one to turn to when you don’t know what to do. For hundreds of young people across the UK this is their reality, Leaving tells their story in their own words.
Leaving is a piece of verbatim theatre. Verbatim involves the playwright recording interviews with a variety of people on a certain topic and then using their actual words to create a piece of theatre. In this case, playwright Paddy Campbell had not only interviewed young people who had left care but also people who worked in the care system such as care workers, social workers, MPs and Oftsted. The actors in Leaving wore headphones, as they performed they were listening to the voices of those who had been interviewed. They performed what the interviewees had said word for word, capturing people’s natural speech patterns and mannerisms.
In writing at the moment there is a lot of discussion surrounding who should get to tell which stories. Is it a good use of a writer’s imagination and a way of giving marginalised people a voice if they write about something they’ve never experienced? Or in writing something where they pretend to understand the situation are they in fact misrepresenting marginalised people and robbing them of their voice?
Verbatim theatre such as Leaving, offers a potential solution to this issue; it is created in collaboration with the people it portrays. They are fully involved in the process and get to tell their own story in their own words, whilst the writer and actors can use their creative input to turn these words into a memorable piece of theatre. This concept intrigued and excited me when I heard about it but it also raised a number of questions for me. Would it be that interesting to watch from a theatrical point of view, after all isn’t it a bit like a documentary?
The performance completely dispelled this thought. Leaving was an incredibly engaging piece of theatre. Rather than watching someone’s story through a screen or just hearing their voice it was if the person was there having a conversation with you. I had also wondered if the play was entirely made up of recordings then how could somebody claim to be the writer of it? Again, this became evident once watching the play. It must have taken hundreds of hours of recording, building relationships with people, then time working out who would speak when, how it would all fit together and making all of the creative decisions such as lighting, props, sound and music. Although a lot of what people said was thought-provoking and moving in itself, Campbell used creativity to show as well as tell their stories. One scene that stuck with me was a teenage lad desperately trying to tidy his room as other characters tipped over each bin of rubbish he collected. It conveyed the frustration of trying to keep on top of everything and of helplessness when learning how to cope with living on your own.
The quality of acting in Leaving was superb, especially when we heard flashes of the actual interviews and could hear how accurately the actors were performing. Each actor played a whole variety of people; it was incredible seeing them swap from a cheeky teenager to a straight-faced department of education worker. As the play used recordings of real people the characters were never caricatures or stereotypes, they were actual people who just told their stories.
In Leaving I felt those issues of ownership over a story were navigated well. Campbell worked as a support worker with young people prior to making the play and spent a long time building rapport with those he interviewed. Theatre company Curious Monkey advertised at the end that they have a theatre group called ‘Troupe’ for young people who are in care. (It sounds brilliant so if you’re eligible it would be well worth checking out here: http://curiousmonkeytheatre.com/blog/portfolio/troupe) Neither Campbell or Curious Monkey exploit people to make ‘good’ theatre, they are actually working with people to see change.
Leaving was different to so many plays I’ve seen, the character’s voices have really stayed with me over the last week or so. Although the play looks at the terrible way young people in care are treated once they turn eighteen there was also a lot of laughter. Some conversations, particularly one between a young lad and his support worker about a treacle sponge pudding, were hilarious. It’s a portrayal of real life and real conversation, full of joking and banter as well as a hard to hear truth. Nothing was sugar coated but neither was it made to be a tragedy. It’s a real story told by real people, and one we all need to hear.