Sunday, August 14, 2016

Care Takers (C, Edinburgh Fringe)

Most of the time, when you see a depiction of homophobic bullying in the school environment, it's told either from the child's perspective, or is inclusive of it. But what Billy Cowan's Care Takers does is completely remove the victim and drills down, beneath and behind the scenes, to see what happens when the system gets involved.

Written as part of a research project by Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire, Care Takers is a blisteringly strong script handled with confidence and passion by two heavily invested, sensitive performers. Set entirely within the office of the deputy head of an inner-city school, Care Takers examines the issue of institutionalised homophobia by presenting both sides of a very compelling argument.

It's a story of morals versus pragmatism. In the one corner you have the compassionate, conscientious drama teacher, Rachel Lawson, who suspects one of her pupils, Jamie Harrow, is being bullied for being gay. In the other corner you have deputy head Sue Rutter, who demands evidence of bullying before she even entertains doing something about it. The side of right in this might seem obvious at first - of course the school should act to stop Jamie being bullied - but the expertly constructed script means the audience is forced to see, understand and in part side with both perspectives.

It's such a clever script that just when you think your hero is timid but virtuous Rachel Lawson - who is determined to get the school to intervene before the matter escalates - you are confronted with a compelling and very nearly convincing argument against taking action from Mrs Rutter. She's been 17 years a teacher and has seen it all before, knows how the system works, and recognises what is achievable within the confines of budgets and policies. Without direct proof that Jamie is being bullied (and yes, Rachel has asked him numerous times, to no avail), she cannot afford to waste valuable time and money on pursuing it.

Lawson asks that a theatre company called Out There is brought in to try and educate pupils about sexuality, but that would cost money the school doesn't have. Nevertheless, Lawson asks Rutter to put the idea to the school board, but Rutter points out that this is an inner-city school, where religious and cultural diversity means certain issues have to be handled carefully. Indeed, as she says, there are a number of Muslims on the school board, and the issue of homosexuality is simply taboo.

Penelope McDonald (Sue Rutter) and
Emma Romy-Jones (Rachel Lawson)
The script, written following research into how schools tackle homophobic bullying, has an answer to everything. And as Lawson grows increasingly irate and frustrated by Rutter's airy refusal to take action, the audience's hackles rise and fall with despair, anger and resignation in equal measure. Watching the series of exchanges between the two teachers, the audience gets a real insight into what it's like to run a school, with its resource and budget limitations, and how national policy hinders "doing what is right".

There's delicious ambiguity in the script too. Rutter accuses Lawson of being personally invested in the case because she is herself a lesbian, but this is never actually confirmed by Lawson. It is merely an assumption made on Rutter's part, and thus the audience's, but the truth remains subtly oblique.

There's also the issue at the very centre of the play: there is no positive proof that Jamie is being bullied because he is gay, or even that he is gay at all. Lawson makes an assumption based upon instinct and personal observation, but when it comes down to it, she cannot say for certain it is the case. And even when the story reaches its hammer-blow conclusion, there's still nothing to prove Lawson was right.

The story culminates in Lawson offering her resignation to Rutter as she feels she cannot work for what she believes is a homophobic bigoted bully. These are strong words to describe Rutter, who is not simply that, and nothing else. These are perfectly crafted, three-dimensional and nuanced characters given life by two very competent and passionate actors.

Penelope McDonald brings a well-observed complexity to Mrs Rutter, a woman with her eye on the prize but who is not blind to Lawson's point of view. Her habit of interrupting Lawson (just as, in turn, headteacher Mr Thompson seems to interrupt her on the phone) is infuriating for the audience as much as it is for Lawson. Emma Romy-Jones has a tense vulnerability as Rachel Lawson, soon giving way to reckless desperation and then almost child-like abandon. If I had awards to give these actors, they could willingly have them.

The ambiguity in Cowan's script is the cleverest trick of all. On the surface, it's obvious what the truth probably is, but when confronted with the behind the scenes debate that centres around conscience versus pragmatism, it's not so easy an argument to settle.

The most haunting line in the play is wisely used as the slogan on the flyer - Those Who Stay Aren't the Ones Who Care. It's a heartbreaking truth to admit, but the ones who stay - the teachers who stick with it - are the ones who become immune to the system's failures, and simply accept and work within them.

The ones who care are left to watch and weep.

The stats
Writer and director: Billy Cowan
Cast: Penelope McDonald (Sue Rutter); Emma Romy-Jones (Rachel Lawson)
Performed at C +3, Edinburgh, August 3rd to 29th, 2016 (not 15th). Performance reviewed: August 13th, 2016

Truant Company website (retrieved Aug 14 2016)
Audience survey (retrieved Aug 14 2016)

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