Waterloo East Theatre, London – until 24 February 2019
Teenagers who live in ‘care’ often come from vulnerable situations. For girls especially who exhibit ‘difficult’ or violent behaviour, ‘the system’ oscillates between ‘bribing’ them to elicit good conduct or ‘deprivation’ as form of punishment… Written by Maureen Lawrence and directed by Charlie Barker, Tokens of Affection takes place in a special teaching unit in Rotherham for ‘troublesome’ girls, during the early eighties.
The play begins with the arrival of two new people on the premises. The first of these is Andrea (Didi Cederstrom), a mute teenage girl whose face and body languge are paradoxically enigmatic and expressive. The other is Gillian (Lindsey Scott) – the latest teaching recruit – who is making her first foray into work after a spell of motherhood.
The other teachers there have very different temperaments, reflecting to some degree their seniority and personal relationship with the girls. As the person officially in charge, Annette (Jennifer Wiltsie) has to sit on committee meetings, secure funding and stand accountable for everything that transpires on the premises. In contrast, Nancy (Anna Kirke) holds the unique position of being trusted by girls. Exhibiting an empathy that stems from her religious convictions, Nancy also has a deep-rooted sense of boundaries – a point where even her easy-going nature has to draw the line.
Nancy’s the only person who can get through to Debbie (Grace Clarke). Asides from having a reputation for being disruptive, Debbie bullies Liane (Elise Carman), who wears a bandage on her hand from the last injury she received. Still, Debbie is not without her ‘allies’. The closest thing Debbie has to a friend is Kelly (Eliza Glock). However, their relationship is complicated (as is everyone’s in the play) so there is more than meets the eye…
Tonally, Tokens adopts tropes that can be seen in The Magdalene Sisters, Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby and Jaki McGarrick’s Belfast Girls, with the maltreatment of girls by society and institutions in the past. However, while there are thematic similarities, most importantly, they are all based on true historical accounts. In the case of Tokens, while aspects of the play are fictionalised, the characters are based on real people – as are their experiences.
Seeing the behaviour of the girls and what they’ve had to put up with at ‘home’, it is impressed on the audience that they need so much more than passing the time with smoking, playing games or sewing. What they really need is counselling and practical help with their disadvantaged educational, economic and social backgrounds. At the beginning of the play, we hear about Kelly’s time in court. But before we make assumptions about her behaviour, we find out about the real reason – her sexual assault which is told in matter-of-fact fashion. From her we can deduce that a) she has little comprehension of the gravity of what transpired and b) because these horrific incidents are so commonplace, in the girls’ experience ‘life is cheap’.
L-R: Anna Kirke, Elise Carman and Grace Clarke
In the case of Liane, she’s the only girl whose mother is still around – a comment she often repeats which grates on the others. Still, when your own mother burns your bed because she doesn’t expect to ever see you again, Liane isn’t perhaps all that ‘lucky’ and why she’s desperate to be liked by the teachers – the closest thing to ‘mother figures’ in her life.
Didi Cederstrom and Jennifer Wiltsie
There’s something almost ‘perverse’ about the way Annette has zero tolerance for Andrea’s refusal to speak, while others such as Debbie are constantly abusive to staff and girls alike. There’s an assumption from the top there’s a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method for the way the girls should be treated, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Andrea’s anger is expressed through her self-will, Debbie’s is shown indiscriminately – her only form of being in ‘control’. At an intuitive level, she knows that being fostered isn’t likely to be a tangible reality.
Today’s headlines are replete with examples of stabbings, often attributed to youths. If this play shows us anything, it’s that not only has nothing changed in the 30+ years since the incidents in the play first took place, but that the underlying reasons for the domestics hardships of the girls are even greater nowadays. If there is such a thing as ‘Broken Britain’, it stems from a lack of willingness from the status quo to address what actually affects people’s lives, rather than stigmatising the dispossessed.
© Michael Davis 2019
Tokens Of Affection runs at Waterloo East Theatre until 24th February.
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