As a first year student social worker, I was eager to attend the opening night of Shallow Slumber at the Soho Theatre in Dean Street, as the play was written by practising social worker Chris Lee. I knew that he’d written it in response to the bad press and culture of blame that has cast a shadow over the profession since the Baby P case hit the headlines in 2008, but I went into the theatre with an open mind as I felt it was important to see Lee’s play.
Act one begins at the end, in a way. The first conversation reveals obvious tensions between Dawn (Amy Cudden) and Moira (Alexandra Gilbreath) the audience piece together that they have a history of some kind – some shared, terrifying secret. It is clear something has happened which has turned both their lives upside down .The end of the first act is a short flashback; a fleeting glimpse of the beginning of Moira’s journey. She’s talking to an unseen panel in an interview situation, brimming with blind enthusiasm and real passion – a stark contrast to our initial meeting with her.
The second act takes us back to where their ‘relationship’ perhaps was ending or had ended. Dawn is in prison with Moira visiting her – again the story unfolds backwards and we’re privy to more of the shared dark secret introduced in the first act. The final act delivers an immensely powerful punch without any reliance on graphic visual scenes. Any horrific images you need to comprehend from their past are painted by the dialogue and sharp performances of the two actors. Finally, we know their secret. And suddenly the play’s tantalising pieces form a terrifying whole.
Moira’s belief in what she was doing and her passion and enthusiasm are crushed. It’s the worst-case scenario for any social worker, yet it happens to real people. Lee’s cleverly constructed ending leaves a raft of unanswered questions in its wake. The intimate upstairs space only allowed 70 or so audience members, with the front row on the same level with the actors, so it immerses you in the play. I didn’t feel I was merely watching, but experiencing each scene.
I left with so many questions. What had happened, or not happened, in the time from the discovery of the secret to Dawn being in prison? What had gone on before this occurred and was Moira to blame? Had she overstepped professional boundaries, or missed some vital signs? Whatever the answers, it throws open questions which turn into debate. One that springs from some clever writing from experienced hands. Of course this case maybe the extreme end of our working practice, but what if it did happen to us?
Shallow Slumber delivered more than I was expecting. I emerged with a sense of how deep and complex our working relationships with people can be. And how very, very real the responsibilities will be. It delivered more than reading case studies, debating newspaper articles, or watching a documentary. You were so closely involved in each moment, heard each breath, felt the raw anger. On the slow walk back to the tube I mulled it over with friends from my social work degree course, who’d come with me to see the play. We talked about our recent seminars and how much we have to grow. We also wondered, how much can be taught to you?
We also discussed whether the portrayal of the extreme realities of our chosen profession – the worst-case scenario – had left us fighting a fear of our chosen career? No. We have woken up to the realities, which we knew about. The play may have brought the deeper challenges into focus for us, but I don’t feel frightened. I am far too green and full of enthusiasm – like the young Moira. And hope to ever remain so.