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Rehearsal shots: Photo Credit @ Alex Powell

Interview: Who cares for kids in care?

Writer/Director Matt Woodhead tells us about The Children’s Inquiry

You can’t help but get excited when you see the name Matt Woodhead pop up on a piece of theatre. It’s associated with exceptional work that often uses verbatim accounts to give voice to underrepresented political, social and economic issues, articulating them through performance to make and inspire change. In the past, his multi-award-winning company LUNG Theatre have campaigned for change for young carers, highlighted issues of suicide amongst prisoners, and challenged the state of social housing. Now The Children’s Inquiry at Southwark Playhouse interrogates issues around children’s care homes, and we are delighted to say Matt agreed to tell us all about it.

Matt, it’s so great to chat with you again for Everything Theatre. Tell us a bit about The Children’s Inquiry and how it came about.

Oh hey!!

Where to begin!? The Children’s Inquiry is a brand-new firecracker of a musical. Helen Monks (Co-Director for LUNG) and I have been working with a group of care experienced teenagers in Essex for the last few years to do our own investigation into the history of the care system.

Told exclusively in the words of those who have been in care, we start in 1896 and weave through time to explore what it means to be a care experienced child today.  

The musical is punchy, political and performed exclusively by children, because who better to tell the stories of children, than the children themselves?

LUNG is renowned for its meticulous, extensive research processes. What’s been involved in putting this script together?

Ah that’s so nice. The research for this production has been particularly wild. Who knew that wading through 150 years of history could be so time consuming?

At the heart of this show is the impact that politics has on the lives of children and how care experienced children particularly feel the pinch of system failure.

We’ve sat in archives looking at the lives of children in the workhouse, spoken to evacuees who left their homes in the Second World War and waded through countless political speeches. I have watched so many Conservative Party conference videos as part of the research process, I got so many targeted ads in the run up to the general election. 

Underpinning all this research is a drive to find out how systems have impacted children. What we’ve found has been heartbreaking but there is hope. A core message of the show is that in the face of political failure and system failure, love prevails. Systems can’t save a person, but people will.

Matt Woodhead

You’ve taken a rather weighty subject but you’re presenting it as a musical – why that format, and is it as much fun as it sounds?

It’s an old cliché, but there’s an old saying in theatre that if something is too painful or difficult to say, you must sing it. The stories that we have gathered and the people we have met are so hard hitting. Musical theatre feels like the only way this story can be told.

The message of this show is so powerful. We want to break the stigma that surrounds children in the care system. Musicals are naturally the most popular and accessible art form. These stories are so urgent. They need to reach as many people as possible. A musical is the only way!

Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creatives in the production and what they bring to the table?

The team working on this production is absolutely incredible. Our composers Owen Crouch (Glastonbury) and Clem Douglas (BBC Radio 1 Dance Vocalist of the Year) have created an electrifying score. Each and every song in an absolute banger. Our musical team (Kate Marlais and Pip Hogg) have brought the songs to life so beautifully, I can’t get them out of my head.

It’s been a privilege to get back in the room with Alexzandra Sarmiento who choreographed our most recent production, Woodhill. Alex was the dance captain on the original London Production of Hamilton and can turn her hat to absolutely anything. As well as injecting a heap load of joy into the rehearsal room, she has created some of the most spellbinding moments of theatre I have ever seen. I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Of course, the people who have brought the most to the table are the cast. Every night 10 children perform on stage in The Children’s Inquiry. We have a different cast performing each evening, which means our rehearsal has involved working with 20 incredible young people. I can’t wait to share with the world what these children can do – it is absolutely mind boggling.  

Will you be having any post-show discussions and activities around the run of the show?

Yes! We have three post-show discussions, each tackling a different theme: the system and reforms, lived experience, and using art to share our stories. We’ve curated a gallery for audiences to engage with at the venue – it’s all about us hearing what care-experienced young people have to say and beginning to relate – human to human – to their experience! On the back of this run, we also aim to set up focus groups and school workshops in several locations across the country.

So, do you really believe that revolutionary theatre like this can help drive change? And what can people who see the show do to give tangible support?

At LUNG, we’re in the business of driving change for sure – with The Children’s Inquiry, it’s a change in attitudes. We have more on this in our ‘call to action’ for those who come to see the show. In short:

  • Build up your knowledge by checking out sources like Become’s introduction to the care system and Free Loaves on Fridays to hear it straight from people who get it 
  • Support experience-led organisations like The Care Experience Movement
  • Don’t stop learning, shouting about it, and connecting with others on it! 

What the state cannot provide in unconditional love for our young people, we can, we must and we will! 

Our enormous thanks to Matt for taking the time to tell us about this important production. The Children’s Inquiry plays at Southwark Playhouse, Elephant until 3 August. More information and details of how to book can be found here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 16 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry, and being a Super Assessor for the Offies! Mary now insists on being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an award winning MA in London's Theatre and Performance.