Paddy Campbell’s new play, Day of the Flymo does not disappoint. Following the success of Wet House, which he based on his experience of working in a hostel for alcoholics, it made perfect sense for Paddy to use his work in a children’s home as the basis for this latest piece. It’s something I know a little about too, as I worked in a children’s home in Newcastle for nearly a year, and then as a teacher in a residential school for ‘bad girls’. So I was very interested to see how Paddy would dramatise the children’s care system and whether his experiences as a care worker would have some resonance with my own.
Rather than going for the obvious, what Paddy is interested in is the circumstances that can bring a child into care. At the pre-show talk, he told us that the play had been inspired by a few sentences he had read in a child’s case notes. When pressed by a member of the audience for further clarification, he explained that while he couldn’t give any confidential details, he was struck by the tone of the notes, which rendered life changing events as almost routine. I remember that gap between the official report and the life of the actual child very well – it can be dehumanising at times – and I really liked that starting point.
So the play isn’t so much about what happens inside a care home, although we do get a little glimpse of that; it’s about the events leading up to a voluntary care order. The story is told from one family’s point of view, with scenes from their deteriorating family life interspersed with the “official” reports of behaviours and their consequences from Ben, the social worker.
Liam, played by Kalem Patterson, is a hyperactive, deeply troubled twelve year old. He ricochets around the stage, playing ever more alarmingly bizarre games as his Mam (professional actress Jill Dellow) struggles to cope. She has been completely broken by Liam’s abusive father to the point where she’s “not right” and spends most of her time in bed. The only person who has any control over Liam is his older sister Becca (a brilliant performance by Tezney Mulroy), a studious sixteen year old who is able to stay focussed on her GCSEs despite the accelerating chaos around her. Her advice to Liam: “Every time you’re about to say something, stop and think. Is this gonna land us in the shit?” is almost impossible for him to follow.
As the story unfolds, we learn about the dreadful events that have shaped his behaviour: the sadistic cruelty of his father, the abuse he tries to protect his Mam from, his exploitation by other, older children who have already started to live beyond the margins of society. Paddy is able to bring these incidents to life in a very real, concrete way. He confidently writes darkly amusing dialogue which I thought rang very true. It moves the story along at a cracking pace and at every turn is juxtaposed with the official language of case notes, social services liaison and the courts, which give a stark reminder of the consequences of state intervention.
Ben, the social worker, is confidently played by Akeminji Ndifornyen as a good man who is clearly troubled by the situation he finds himself in; as Liam’s behaviour becomes ever more extreme, Ben is forced to persuade Mam that he must go into care, promising a really good ‘placement’ in a children’s home, where Liam will be able to mend his ways away from the malign influence of his older peers. Again, I found this very plausible; social workers do the job to try and make things better for children, but sometimes their intervention can make things worse!
Liam’s only friend is Clara, a “posh” girl who he chats up at the bus stop. Initially reluctant to get drawn into Liam’s wild schemes, it soon becomes clear that Clara’s home life is also deeply troubled despite the apparent wealth of her family. There are some very funny scenes between the two as they get to know about each other and their very different worlds, but it’s also a timely reminder that any child’s life can be plunged into chaos by the actions of their family.
The play is sensitively directed by Paul James, who gives the actors the space and encouragement to develop their characters. I really admired his approach to directing when I observed it at a rehearsal I attended just before the show opened. The cast of two professional actors, Jill Dellow and Akeminji Ndifornyen, and the three young people playing the children, Tezney Mulroy as Becca, Sophie Pitches as Clara and especially Kalem Patterson as Liam, are all brilliant and I think the younger cast members learnt a great deal from being involved and on stage with professionals – they really are confident in their roles.
This is an absolutely cracking show, which has some terrifying moments along with plenty of laughs. It’s great entertainment. It’s also, in my opinion, a very accurate depiction of the care system. It doesn’t moralise, and the only real baddie is Liam’s Dad who we never see. But it does pose questions about the way the system operates, and whether it actually does more harm than good. And most importantly, it shows us that those caught up in it are real people who deserve something better, which I totally agree with.
Please go and see this play – it’ll make you laugh out loud, as we did on Thursday night, but it will also make you think about the terror and tragedy of some children’s lives.
Review by Sarah Binns
Guest blogger for March and April