Review: Tokens of Affection
Image: Waterloo East Theatre
Debbie - Grace Clarke
Kelly - Eliza Glock
Liane - Elise Carman
Andrea - Didi Cederstrom
Annette - Jennifer Wiltsie
Nancy - Anna Kirke
Gillian - Lindsey Scott
This often witty and disarmingly charming play is also a startling theatrical peek into the world of a special teaching unit for the containment of violent or maladjusted girls in Bradford in the nineteen-eighties.
Seen through the eyes of a recently qualified social care professional, the day centre is a place of chaos and struggle with no real sense of what it is trying to achieve, apart from keeping the girls off the streets.
But it is also a place of high energy and laughter, small glimmers of hope come from the humour and wit intrinsic in the plays' younger characters as, even though almost broken by circumstances, their resilience is astounding.
The small tokens of affection can be found in the very human interactions between these disturbed children and their over-worked and under-supported carers.
This 'lost' work by Maureen Lawrence, playwright, author, and former Derby Playhouse writer in residence, has not been produced since its original production at Derby Playhouse in 1990.
Before I begin, I have to 'declare an interest' in this play, like (but not quite the same as) people in public life have to do - at least when they are truthful!
No, I'm not a relative of the author, or director, nor have any financial interest in the production, or anything like that.
But I do have experience of the setting which forms the basis of this gritty and sometimes poignant drama by Maureen Lawrence, here getting its London premiere.
For more years than I now care to remember, I was a teacher in a tough state school which, for reasons I don't have time to go into here, had numerous difficult pupils who placed immense burdens not only on staff, but also on the progress of their peers.
The school opted to set-up its own 'special unit' which had dedicated teachers to look after a small number of the most difficult kids who found mainstream classroom life a means to cause havoc and overwhelming stress, especially for teachers.
Additionally, I also taught classes of recalcitrant students, many of whom could have found a place in that unit too if only space allowed, and I also spent some time in a special unit for severely 'maladjusted' children during my teacher training.
It's that segregation of 'difficult' pupils from mainstream education that this play describes in unflinching detail.
The location for Tokens of Affection is a special unit where a handful of adolescents reluctantly fetch-up each day to be supervised by a small team of teachers.
Well, teachers might not be the most appropriate term here - 'minders' might be more apt.
Because there's really not very much teaching going on - at least not in terms of academic subjects, even if there are some school desks in view.
For much of the time, the attendees play games - like ludo - do sewing or a spot of cooking, and a lot of smoking - given cigarettes by the staff as rewards for good behaviour, or just to get them out of the way for a while.
And there's a lot of arguing and swearing.
As we join the play, there are only four girls attending the unit, with two staff to look after them.
(From left) Eliza Glock (Kelly), Jennifer Wiltsie (Annette), Grace Clarke (Debbie) - photo by Lidia Crisafulli
Ruling the roost of the establishment - which turns out to be a house rather than a dedicated school building - is Mrs Rushworth, who thinks that rules, tokens doled out as rewards and a firmly locked door is the way to keep the unit functioning without drawing the attention of the cost-conscious local authority, possibly putting jobs at risk.
A new teacher, Mrs Lever arrives and quickly recognises that more needs to be done to deal with the children's issues and wants to try talking to them.
Though that sounds like a good idea, it's hardly likely to work on new girl Andrea, who never speaks a single word during the entire play and seems in need of highly specialised psychological or psychiatric care which the unit simply can't provide.
For many people seeing the play, this side of the educational system - at least as it was back in the mid-1980s - will feel strange and shocking given their own experience of the school system.
But for me the play captures perfectly the daily grind of life within one of these special units and the nature of the characters - who seemed to have been conjured-up on stage directly from my own memory.
The realistic nature of this work is partly due to Maureen Lawrence's vividly real, unsparing portrayal of all the characters in her well-written script which, by condensing events, manages to maintain the flow to make for a totally absorbing 2 hours.
Ms Lawrence's writing, however, would count for little without Charlie Barker's exceptional and gifted, spot-on direction that generously yet meticulously exhorts naturally believable, totally compelling performances from a perfectly cast team of actors.
Though Tokens of Affection is set back in the 1980s, it's as relevant as ever in discussing just how we make our education system suitable for all our young people, and how we can provide that special care some of them desperately need to enable them to successfully take their places in society and lead happy and fulfilling lives.
As I know only too well, that is a big challenge for the 'system', but it's one we need to rise to and tackle, perhaps more so now than ever as technology increasingly intervenes in social interactions leaving, perhaps, more young people in need of carefully planned and effective support.
Socially important as it is, Tokens of Affection is also a terrific piece of theatre in its own right - unnervingly real and riveting.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Waterloo East Theatre
Our show listing for Tokens of Affection
Read our reviews' policy