Who Cares, a new play by up and coming theatre company LUNG which ran to critical acclaim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is co-produced with The Lowry, focuses on young people in Salford, Greater Manchester, who care for others but are largely ignored by government. A ‘young carer’ is defined as someone under the age of 18 - amounting to approximately 700,000 people in the UK.
Around one in 12 young people are expected to have to care for someone with a long-term condition at some point in their early lives. Many will miss, on average, 48 days of school a year, be subjected to bullying, and come from families who rely on food banks. Although the Children and Families Act of 2014 made it easier for young carers to get an assessment of their needs and introduced ‘whole family’ approaches to providing support, many councils lack guidelines as to what a support service should look like. The outcome is that many young carers still remain invisible, under the radar of professionals, teachers and friends. Even worse, they are often unaware that at least some support is available to them.
These circumstances give rise to problems with child development and educational achievement, and encourage the onset of isolation and depression. The state’s refusal to recognise that such children exist means that, in effect, they don’t. A blind eye is being turned to their needs even though young carers do the work of adult carers for free. Along with the 6.8 million other carers of all ages, they save the UK economy £132 billion a year.
In fact the assistance provided in 2019 for young carers isn’t much different from the 1950s, when as a young boy, my own father helped to care for his partly-disabled mother with no outside support whilst his dad went out to earn a living. Like many young carers now, he lived in poverty stricken circumstances. It’s shameful that over the last 70 years so little has changed for young carers in the world’s seventh largest economy.
Who Cares, which was created from two years of gathering testimonies from young carers and support workers in Salford, gives these facts a human face through a fast-paced, scintillating show with testimonies from young carers who are anything but self–pitying or victimizing. Designer Jen McGinley has created a stereotypical locker room such as you might find at any school, consistent with the theory that much of childhood development takes place in such spaces.
Three immensely talented actors (Jessica Temple, Lizzie Mounter and Luke Grant) play the carers Jade, Nicole and Connor, and present the audience with their intertwining stories which describe family breakdowns and struggles with health care workers and teachers at school (who, amazingly and consistently, fail to realize that behavioral problems are linked to family responsibilities).
Owen Crouch’s soundscape is full of modern music, and makes use of beeps and alarms and knocks as summons from the everyday while the children juggle time–keeping with their carer responsibilities as their childhood (or what they have experienced of it) is running out, and fast. Underneath all the high aesthetics hard stories are being told. LUNG’s script-consultant Helen Monks brings everything together in a cumulative event - the point at which the three children stop being kids and turn into adults.
One, Nicole, was only four when she had to start caring for her sick mum. This point is important because it’s the moment when you might expect the state - in the guise of social workers, councils and schools - to have intervened. They don’t, and though the directors refrain from underlining it too heavily, their failure gapes at you like the black hole that Jade, Connor and Nicole are in danger of falling into unless a charity like Salford Young Carers Service gets to them first.
But this isn’t just a ‘sigh and go home’ kind of show. It’s real political theatre that’s proud and happy to engage with social problems. Woodhead and Monks consciously include interviews from the other side of the care ‘divide’ like council employees and charity volunteers - much like cinema’s equivalent director Ken Loach and producer Rebeeca O’Brien in films such as I, Daniel Blake.
The play gives a wider view of the breakdown in society’s infrastructure and social institutions. We learn that there are fewer places that kids can go where they might be able to get help, or where responsible adults might pick up on hidden problems. Libraries are closing and youth groups are struggling for funds. All of this adds to the strain as charities are increasingly being asked to pick up the pieces, and children become more and more disaffected and/or left to cope on their own. As Connor, one of the three main characters, comments towards the play’s end, when these young carers themselves need care, who is there for them?
LUNG links all of this to our age of austerity. With clinical efficiency, Nicole relates how cuts to the disability living allowance and the enforced reassessments that are carried out under its much-maligned replacement, the Personal Independence Payment, simply put her sick mother in a jail of spiraling poverty from which there is no escape.
In Who Cares the outcomes for the three young carers and their dependents are mostly good, though with some twists, but many others will slip through the net. It is really this that LUNG and the charities behind the show and its accompanying campaign Who Cares seek to highlight (an effort championed by Salford Young Carers Service and LUNG that calls on Parliament to improve services for Young Carers). Out of the show has emerged a political plan of action - a petition that will ask parliament to discuss giving young carers three forms of security.
First, all councils should have a statutory responsibility to monitor the quality of their young carers’ service and ensure that anyone aged 0-18 has access to an assessment of their needs and a base level of support. Second, all schools should have a statutory responsibility to include young carers in the School Census and Ofsted Handbook's definition of vulnerable young people. And third, the introduction of a Young Carers Identification Card, which would be nationally recognised and allow young carers to be visible to local services. It might seem that these are basic levels of assistance, so it is stunning to learn that in 2019 they are not yet in place.
Over a coffee in Edinburgh, Matt Woodhead (the co-director of both LUNG and Who Cares) tells me that the work will go on with young carers and support groups and that all sorts of projects and campaigns are in the pipeline. He is serious, and it’s clear that he and everyone else at LUNG are thoroughly committed to social change through their work. This is a young company taking a mature lead and responding to a changing theatrical world. In time LUNG could become a power to be reckoned with as they seek not accolades for themselves, but instead focus on the needs of those their shows are about.
The UK might have a slightly snobby attitude towards ‘political’ or ‘socially conscious activist’ theatre of this nature, though Good Chance’s ‘The Jungle’ making it to the West End and New York may be a sign of changing views. However, too much of this kind of work is confined to outreach departments and isn’t given the same kind of importance as the main repertoire in many British theatres, at least when compared with the rest of Europe, especially Belgium, where no one makes distinctions between ‘community’ and ‘professional’ theatre anymore.
LUNG might be on the way to changing this situation: they are relentlessly curious about the world and reveal truths that others would rather remain hidden.