Angry. Violent. Relentless. That’s what’s on the daily menu as teachers try to run an educational refuge for teenage girls who have been shunned by their schools for being – well, angry, violent and relentless. The girls are in educational care, rather than full care, as they still return home each day but these miscreants have little interest in learning, find it impossible to settle to anything for any length of time and amuse themselves by taking delight in bullying the weaker ones, fighting each other like deranged cats, verbally abusing their long-suffering supervisors and taking every opportunity to have a cigarette break. But no need to worry: there’s a direct alarm to the cop shop and officers can be there in 3 minutes. The only reason that this last resort is not used more often is because the director of the facility fears that funding would be rescinded and the teachers would lose their jobs. It’s a vicious circle. So vicious in fact that anything slightly resembling a sharp object has to be securely locked away in a cupboard.
Maureen Lawrence’s searingly graphic account of life in an Educational Day Centre for wayward teenage girls is set in the ’eighties but, frankly, is just as relevant today – the corollary being that there’s not as much funding these days. It’s a chaotic struggle for the would-be educators who can only survive with defensive coping mechanisms and an instinct for survival: shrinking violets should not apply.
Anette is the Team Leader with her eye firmly fixed on the funding of the unit and she rules the place with a velvet fist in an iron glove: underneath her uncompromising bluff exterior there beats a heart of semi-precious base metal and she rules the roost with a rod of malleable plastic: it’s her Centre, she makes the rules so she’s entitled to break them as she fancies. Jennifer Wiltsie plays this to the hilt, daring us to get on her wrong side, not looking for sympathy or understanding, imperious in her belief that hers is the right and only way.
She’s ably supported by Anna Kirk as Nancy, the Mother Theresa figure, the one who connects with the girls, usually anyway, the one who is the reasonable counterpoint to Anette’s bluster and aggression: it’s good by Kirk. Gillian is the newbie, thrown into the deep end without training or a full understanding of her role or the centre’s purpose. Lindsay Scott’s nicely judged performance elucidates for us the dichotomy of the balance between tough love and just tough. She cleverly gets us on her side and then gets us asking ourselves – why?
Whilst the teachers supply the backdrop to the action it’s the girls who are in the eye of the storm, who are in each others faces, whose complexities are the catalyst to the mayhem and the tears. This group of four teenagers are a bunch of shouty, screechy, scratchy, tearful, moany, nasty, creepy, deceitful lying delinquents who feel they have nothing, therefore have nothing to lose (if I may paraphrase Dylan). What a fantastic quartet of performers. There’s Grace Clarke as Debbie the bullying ring-leader whose vicious uncontrollable tongue is always destined to get her into serious hot water. It’s an explosive performance by Clarke and she is able to expertly convey her deep-seated vulnerability and her feet become a kind of visual signal that she is unable to control the warring factions in her head.
Liane is the put-upon scatterbrained recipient of all the sh*t that Debbie can launch at her and Elise Carman brilliantly portrays her worrying little-girl-lost intensity that makes her a natural punch-bag for the more wilful characters around her.
It’s a bit of a thankless task for Didi Cederstrom playing new girl Andrea: Andrea doesn’t speak. But her smouldering, threatening presence presides over events like a glowering weather bomb in waiting: we know that at some point Storm Andrea will arrive with ultimate prejudice.
Then there’s Kelly. She is played with stiletto-like precision by Eliza Glock who runs the full gamut of an emotional roller-coaster in her deeply moving characterisation. Kelly is nice and nasty, affectionate and brutal, caring and conniving, empathetic and heartless: incredibly, at one point, Glock manages to get all this across in a simple game of Ludo. It is a profoundly affecting performance.
Lawrence’s writing is raw and uncompromising and director Charlie Barker gets it, gets inside it and gets some stunning performances from her highly motivated team. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing pleasant about this production but it challenges and provokes and demands that we sit up and take notice. It’s acutely discomfiting – a testament to Barker and her cast.
What is a pleasure is to discover a new (to me) venue: Waterloo East is the creation (since 2010) of Gerald Armin who effortlessly combines the roles of House Manager/Bar Tender/General Dogsbody and Artistic Director. It’s a
lovely venue – in a railway arch along from the Old Vic – and if you haven’t been it’s well worth a visit. And Tokens Of Affection attests to the fact that the standard of productions at Waterloo East is pretty damn good.
Review by Peter Yates
‘These few girls, they’re probably the most important people in the whole place. Because nobody wants to be in their shoes – with nothing to lose.’
Tokens of Affection, the riveting award-winning winning playwright, Maureen Lawrence, has its London premiere at Waterloo East Theatre from 5th of February 2018.
Set in a special teaching unit for the containment of violent or maladjusted girls in Bradford in the nineteen-eighties, this witty and disarmingly charming play offers a peek into this chaotic world through the once rose-tinted eyes of a recently qualified social care professional.
The day centre is a place of confused limbo, with its only clear goal being to keep the girls off the streets. The girls themselves are lost but together they find small glimmers of hope through their humour and wit, an intrinsic of the plays’ younger characters as, even though almost broken by circumstances, their resilience is astounding. The small tokens of affection can be found in the very human interactions between these disturbed children and their over-worked and under-supported carers.
Debbie – Grace Clarke
Kelly – Eliza Glock
Liane – Elise Carman
Andrea – Didi Cederstrom
Annette – Jennifer Wiltsie
Nancy – Anna Kirke
Gillian – Lindsey Scott
Playwright – Maureen Lawrence
Director – Charlie Barker
Assistant Director – Elizabeth Leemann
Designer – Hugo Aguirre
Stage Manager – Pip Snow
Waterloo East Theatre, Brad Street, Clapham SE1 8TN, London
Booking to 24th February 2019