Pros: Outstanding writing, direction and performances.
Cons: Not really a con, but it’s heavy going and distressing – be prepared.
I love and hate it when a play really makes me think. Carthage is a hard-hitting new piece of writing by first time playwright, Chris Thompson. It opens up a recognisable enough topic – the lives of young offenders and young people in care – in a straight up, witty and intelligent way. Thompson has worked with young people as a social worker for over ten years and currently works in young people’s sexual health in the NHS. Thus this piece is a personal response to his experiences and, by extension, a frank and unflinching study of the care system.
Tommy Anderson was born in prison and, at a tender age, died in prison. The traumatic final moments of this life are recorded on CCTV. Though watched over and over, scrutinised by a court of law and those close to Tommy, no one can really answer the simple question: whose fault was it? Tommy’s mother Anne, an ex–offender herself, blames prison officer Marcus, who was in charge when Tommy died. Marcus is acquitted by the courts but is tormented by his involvement and wants the family’s long-time social worker, Sue, to also admit that she played a part along with Anne.
The plot highlights episodes in Tommy’s life: his mother, pregnant in prison, with those around her wondering whether she will be fit to care for him; his home life with his mother years later, where Tommy is adamant he’d rather be with her than in a foster home; and his almost inevitable incarceration after committing a violent crime following an abusive and unstable upbringing. Ultimately it tells the story of a wasted life.
The writing is explicit, sarcastic and to the point. It explores the idea that, despite having committed an awful crime at a young age, Tommy is just a vulnerable and defenceless boy who cannot navigate or control his emotions and actions properly without resorting to aggression. It shows the genuine effort, determination, concern and frustration of his social worker and prison officers trying to set him on a stable path. And the struggle of his mother, the victim of an abusive upbringing herself, fighting her own demons and maintaining an inconsistent and unhelpful relationship with her child.
The faultless and infinitely believable acting makes the play pretty hard to watch, especially from the front row. The four main actors of the piece – Tommy (Jack McMullen), Anne (Claire-Louise Cordwell), Marcus (Toby Wharton) and Sue (Lisa Palfrey) – are outstanding. McMullen and Cordwell act with an expert blend of genuinely- terrifying- to-witness aggression, spitting-hate and heartrending vulnerability. Palfrey’s performance is darkly witty and Wharton’s earnest, tormented struggle with his involvement is excellent. The direction in the small space is perfectly executed with tremendous attention to detail and slick transitions. The stage design is suitably bland and stripped back which allows the main focus to stay on the actors.
This play, skilfully written, is pretty heavy going. It really made me think and genuinely upset me. It’s quite easy – when not directly involved and, with the general drudgery of everyday life – to not think about the lives of young people growing up in social care, living in abusive and dangerous situations on our own doorstep. It’s easier to think even less of those trying to help them. And following this play, as I think about it more, I wonder what I can really do personally to help. As the play demonstrates, these young people are complicated and yet fairly simple at the same time. The help from those around them can be inconsistent, unsure and indecisive, because those helping them are only human themselves. The system they become a part of is hampered by a bureaucracy naturally influenced by the constant scrutiny of the public eye.
Days after seeing this piece I still don’t know what to think, or what the solution could be. There isn’t a simple one. I do know that you should see this play while you can. Carthage is an outstandingly executed piece of writing littered with honesty and frustration. It deserves the entire accolade it will no doubt receive throughout its debut at the Finborough.
Author: Chris Thompson
Director: Robert Hastie
Producer: Theatre Bench
Booking Until: 22nd February 2014
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/carthage.php