Matt Woodhead’s verbatim script is derived from two years of interviews with its subjects, largely young carers in Salford, but also with many other people involved somehow in that care: politicians, social workers and – perhaps most startlingly – the cared-for themselves. As with LUNG’s previous shows, the team have used this extensive time to get to know their subjects as few journalists are ever able to do, finding a remarkable level of intimacy and honesty, especially from those who might otherwise keep the outside world at a distance, and vice versa.
They get incredibly close, and then bring us with them.
As many know first hand (and as the rest of us can imagine), the story of young carers in the UK is generally a dire one, and Who Cares is, unavoidably, the bleakest LUNG production in recent years.
The company have always presented stories that voice the difficulty and struggle in people’s lives, but Who Cares feels markedly different to their last two productions, 2015’s E15 and last year’s Trojan Horse. In each of those shows, there were threads of belief, hope or defiance for the audience to grab onto throughout. E15 (from within London’s housing crisis) had protest and resistance at its heart; Trojan Horse (chronicling the Birmingham schools scandal) had ideology and community. Some terrible things were more closely understood, and both carried intense sadness, but we didn’t feel bludgeoned by them.
Or at least, not as bludgeoned as we do by Who Cares. In almost every place that this play looks, the story is sad, and getting worse. In the institutions designated to support young carers, cuts have left offices of empty chairs and unused desks. Politicians feel powerless. The cared-for feel themselves a terrible weight.. And as the company (Luke Grant, Lizzie Mounter and Jessica Temple) reveal the carers’ own histories, individual stories are sometimes unbelievably sad. Not just because life is difficult – we were at least prepared for this – but because of the ever growing number of complexities, the ways it changes the carers and their families, the shapes into which it casts their childhoods, their lives. We see how caring is not one problem, but a hundred – a thousand – problems overlapping.
Another engine of the play’s ferocity is its compression – the events of years hit us all in an hour. The risk with this is that the compression also contains, quarantines: we care when we’re in it, right there with them, but if we ourselves are not already living in or beside this (and I appreciate here that many audiences actually will be), the theatre (almost literally) boxes it off from the rest of our lives.
LUNG seem aware of this dilemma, and present Who Cares not to simply stir our emotions, but to move us forward. The play supports a campaign with an unusually specific and practical manifesto, including the introduction of a young carers ID card that its advocates hope would ease some of the challenges young carers face externally, for example in hospitals and schools. Another policy the play advocates is the expansion of a Young Carers Network, and herein – finally – lies the play’s two threads of hope.
The first is the relief and solidarity that Salford Young Carers has provided to the play’s subjects. Each young carer’s life is shaped differently, but there’s a commonality in their experience that each other can recognise, and the voices in this play attest to the ways this recognition has helped them with their identity and relationships outside their families, and the relief it has given to some of their oft-felt isolation.
The second thread is the ambition and hope of the carers themselves, who still look outwards towards what their lives could be – still can be. Because LUNG are good journalists, they refuse to patronise us or pretend that things are better than they are. But because they are also good activists, they believe, sincerely, that things could be better. We only hear the words of their interviewees, but thrumming behind them, we can hear Woodhead and his company’s authorship too. And they are really, really bloody angry.
Who Cares is on at Summerhall until 25th August. More info and tickets here.