“The Dark Room is a play that exposes the failures of the care system”

As National Care Leaver's Week is under way, Audrey Sheffield, director of The Dark Room, a new play looking at the young people in care, explains how art can highlight the most devastating problems in society

This November, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s award-winning The Dark Room (Best New Australian Work, Sydney Theatre Awards) will be staged at Theatre503. The play is an intricately layered psychological thriller, exposing one of the most devastating issues of contemporary Australian discourse – the startling mistreatment of those most vulnerable in our society, our children, at the hands of those we most look to for protection.

The Dark Room is a real gift of a play. It transports us to a richly atmospheric, far-away world. We are immersed in a disturbing reality, strangely remote yet frighteningly familiar. It’s an exciting combination of complex characters – beautifully and warmly drawn – whose important and unsettling stories are both ambitiously and compellingly played out.

Whilst set amidst the claustrophobic heat of a distant, isolated town on the other side of the world in Australia’s Northern Territory, the events that unravel and the issues that are raised are alarmingly recognisable and deeply resonant in contemporary society here in the UK.

Audrey Sheffield

It throws up such a long stream of fascinating and challenging questions, exposing many hard-to-stomach, nevertheless wholly pertinent and vital social and political injustices, such as: police corruption; racism; homophobia; inadequate social care services – as experienced by those working within the system, in addition to those supposedly on the receiving end of these provisions.

The show also highlights the lack of support in education for teachers as well as for children and young people who have been marginalised in some way; failing mental health provision for young people in the community and in psychiatric hospitals, within an underfunded system, alongside under-supported and over-stretched employees that inevitably leads to an unsustainable and deeply flawed system.

Of these issues, I’d like to further illuminate one in particular that is of growing national concern –the many children in care, and our current service and mental health provision for these vulnerable young people.

The numbers of children currently being taken into care in the UK are at record levels and rising, leading to fears that the system could soon be at breaking point. Looked After Children, like the characters of Grace and Joseph in The Dark Room, will often have experienced multifaceted abuse and multiple placement breakdowns in childhood and adolescence.

A well-documented fact in the UK, is that care leavers have a far higher rate of mental health problems than the national average – half of children in youth custody have been in foster or residential care.

Suicide has replaced accidents as the biggest killer of teenagers and those aged under 25

A child like Grace, will have had numerous in-care experiences – varying according to where she may be placed, and for how long, before she was either moved on to another child care service provision or returned to her family home. As is regrettably often the case, many children in care in the UK experience poor emotional wellbeing and some experience diagnosable mental health problems.

These can be caused by pre-care trauma or even by the impact of being in care itself; the nature of which is so often inconsistent and in that way detrimental to the stability and mental health of these already vulnerable children, who are actually those in most need of continuity and emotional security.

And again, as is the case for both Grace and Joseph– young people in an extremely vulnerable mental state – there is a distinct lack of proper provision for increasing numbers of these children and young people suffering serious psychological distress, some with psychiatric disorders here in the UK. This is reflected by the fact that suicide has replaced accidents as the biggest killer of teenagers and those aged under 25. Issues regarding funding and the limited availability of NHS provision to address the growing psychological needs of young people are unfortunately well documented.

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These uniquely vulnerable individuals form what is often referred to as an ‘invisible minority’ as they face yet another particular set of challenges, entering into adult life. And it is with this in mind that the National Care Leaver’s Foundation was initially set up 18 years ago. Having since achieved national recognition, they have also extended some modest but vital financial assistance and encouragement to hundreds of care leavers who lack the fundamental support that the majority of us might take for granted. Alongside making these small grants to care leavers under the age of 30, another significant aspect of the foundation’s activity within the wider sector has been to specifically influence policy wherever possible, and to affect real change for future care leavers.

It is especially timely then that 25th October – 3rd November sees National Care Leaver’s Week, where the focus is to encourage those agencies responsible for looking after care leavers to work together in an effective and coordinated way, alongside raising both political and public awareness of the particular needs and challenges that face these vulnerable young people at these important times of transition in their lives.

Telling stories is exploring ideas, and most, if not all, of the ideas and issues explored in The Dark Room will ring bells for many – as parallel to some of the most devastating and important problems we face in British society today. The play serves as a timely reminder that no matter how far apart we are in distance and time, we are all responsible for each other’s lives.

Audrey Sheffield directs The Dark Room at Theatre503, London, Wednesday 8th November – Saturday 2nd December 2017