Joe Hammond’s first professionally produced play, a three-hander depicting a few days in the life of a child in care, uneasily splices an attempt at social realism with its mangled mangrove fantasies.
Shaun (Charlie Jones) is – according to the script – twelve years old, but as performed he could be anything from an average nine-year-old to a much older child with learning difficulties; he is played as cheerily chippy, rather than the mercurial and troubled child that his lines seem to suggest.
The setting is his bedroom in a care home, its routines imposed by Mike (David Birrell), a man who is shown to be a manipulative and – eventually – abusive parent figure, though one surprisingly lacking in charisma. After any interest in the interaction between the pair has staled, hardened and grown colonies of mould, a third character, Charles (Mark Springer), makes his appearance to the sound of a much-to-be-repeated snippet of African drumming. But where the lines between fantasy and reality could have been interestingly blurred, it is clear from the first time he appears that Charles is a figment of Shaun’s imagination: a character from a treasured picture book. The pair’s night time ventures are not only utterly unadventurous – surely a twelve-year-old would imagine hazards, encounters with the crocodiles, buffalo and snakes to be found in mangrove swamps – but clearly the (un)imaginative product of a child running around in a park at night, as mockingly described from the outset by Mark.
The play’s use of Africa as an escapist dreamland is particularly problematic. Though not quite Little Black Sambo, the picture book Shaun brandishes as a talisman against the grim realities of life in care seems to present an unrealistically naive and dated picture of life in Africa. Shaun’s un-nuanced attitude to race is similarly bizarre – he exclaims ‘I want a black daddy!’ in the style of a more privileged child demanding a pony, or a goose that lays golden eggs.
Mark makes for a tragi-comically inept abuser, his attempts at grooming Shaun lurching drunkenly from statements of affection to sober meditations on the reality of modern Africa – meditations that entirely lose their power by coming from the unreliable villain of the piece.
Foundering adrift between its split locations, this play fails either to create a realistic care home environment, or a rich and enticing fantasy world to take refuge in. In Where the Wild Things Are, unruly imagination takes over, turning rebellious Max’s bad behaviour into a whole society where normal rules are replaced by impulsive anarchy; Shaun is similarly impulsive and unpredictable, but is met with fantasies as stolid and tedious as his institutionalised reality.