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Review of Groomed by Patrick Sandford at Soho Theatre

GroomedIt’s nothing to do with hairdressing or dogs. Just by saying on social media that I was at a show about grooming, a friend very kindly sent me by reply a few photographs of very beautiful dogs, presumably meant to be examples of pets well styled by a groomer. There is nothing wrong, of course, with pets looking their best, and the joy and friendship such pets bring to their owners is incalculable. But Groomed is about an altogether different sort of grooming. The NSPCC website defines this sort of grooming as: “when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.”

Patrick Sandford’s story is a largely autobiographical one. I qualify that with ‘largely’ only because there is a late scene in which the justifications of the perpetrator – Sandford’s account focuses on one offender, a primary school teacher – are imagined. Even here, as Sandford explains in a post-show discussion (worth mentioning here as there is one after every performance), the words used are taken verbatim from interviews conducted with former sex offenders.

It is a bold thing to relive experiences of this nature, in front of a paying public, and bolder still to attempt to reflect, as accurately as possible, the other side of the argument, however barmy defence arguments may be (and, in my humble opinion, are). Repeated returns to the story of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who refused to accept Japan had lost the Second World War until his retired commanding officer was tracked down and flew out to relieve Onoda of duty in 1974, were intriguing, both in their own right and in the way in which Sandford related it to victims of child abuse. Elsewhere, references to the theatre of Ancient Greece seemed a tad contrived.

Still, it was a bit of a culture shock, I must admit, hearing the panellists Sandford had brought together, speak of ‘child sexual exploitation’ in the abbreviated form ‘CSE’ almost casually, as though they were talking about having purchased a ‘DVD’ from ‘HMV’. These are, however, people who work tirelessly to provide support to victims – or, as Sandford puts it, survivors. For them, ‘CSE’ is, to misquote the common phrase, something they do see every day.

As for the production itself, it proceeds at a brisk pace. Sandford claims to be of a certain age: if he had not been so brutally honest about everything I might have disagreed with him about that, darting about the performance space with chairs and other bits of set rapidly being shifted around, and convincing portrayals of his childhood self. The script is highly descriptive, mercifully light on re-enacting scenes, allowing the audience’s imagination to take flight and simultaneously not making audiences recoil in horror. If anyone is to be offended here, well, they only have themselves to blame.

For Sandford, it won’t do to subject any and all child abusers – groomers – to some sort of ‘final solution’. It would, as one of the other panellists pointed out after the show, increase the number of walls of silence. Sandford prefers a less hard-line approach, advocating education and therapy, in order that they can become better people and make a positive contribution to society. He goes as far as wanting a confidential hotline for those who have feelings towards prepubescents that they don’t want to have, as a method of reform. It’s an interesting way of thinking about this harrowing topic. Consider this: if that teacher had contacted such a hotline, things might have turned out so differently.

What this production demonstrates, more than anything, is just how complicated child abuse is. Rather than just get angry about the child abuse teacher’s colleagues not saying anything, Sandford strategically asks why. Did they not know what to do? Was it turning a blind eye, or not wanting to believe what they saw to be true? Both? Special mention here goes to Tomm Coles, deftly playing the saxophone, an instrument Sandford describes as “unafraid of being present”, and again that statement is related back to being not merely a victim but a survivor of sexual abuse.

No, I didn’t enjoy the show. How appalling would it be if I did? It is a difficult play to watch, for sure. But this insightful, intelligent and intriguing play will remain etched in my memory, possibly permanently.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

It is unusual for a director to become a performer. Patrick Sandford does so at the age of 65 to perform his solo show GROOMED, a play that was 50 years in the writing.

Combining three gripping narratives, a Japanese soldier who refuses to stand down, the inventor of the saxophone and the personal story of a betrayed schoolboy, GROOMED pushes past sensationalist celebrity headlines, and shows the lasting impact of abuse into adulthood.

As the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse takes evidence GROOMED is a public testimony. The play needed to be written; it almost wrote itself.

Over the years Patrick has integrated his past – but the work of recovery is never complete. There are no easy answers. Rather the complicated questions persist: Why didn’t I say anything? Was I complicit? Why did nobody notice? What if they don’t believe me? What if it’s true that the abused becomes the abuser, like vampires? What did that man think he was doing?

Directed by Nancy Meckler, best known as joint artistic director of Shared Experience, after 22 years at the helm Nancy has now returned to freelance directing, She is associate director of Hampstead Theatre and this year directs King Lear at The Globe.

Ingenious Purpose present
GROOMED
By Patrick Sandford
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Press Night: Thu 15 June, 7.15pm
Tue 13 Jun – Sat 1 Jul 2017
sohotheatre.com

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