The Lowry and LUNG in partnership with Gaddum
BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds
The longevity of Matt Woodhead’s play Who Cares? is both impressive and depressing. Currently an audio play, it originated five years ago as a verbatim stage play based upon interviews with, and featuring in the cast, teenagers who undertook a caring role in their families. The fact the play remains relevant, however, suggests the issue of teenagers sacrificing their youth and adopting adult responsibilities before their time has not been resolved and the awareness-raising impact of the play has not achieved the primary objective.
Nicole (Lizzie Mounter), Jade (Jessica Temple) and Connor (Luke Grant) share the usual concerns and challenges of teenagers: overcrowded buses, horrible school meals. Each is also the primary carer in their family. Nicole’s mother is suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke. Jade’s brother is profoundly deaf and has learning difficulties, her father is confined to a wheelchair after an accident and her mother has left the family. Connor’s mother is bipolar, and his father has fibromyalgia—a congenital condition causing chronic pain from which Connor has also begun to suffer.
Who Cares? is relentlessly bleak. The only way Connor can distract his mother from a suicide attempt is to cut himself. It is hard to avoid the conclusion a horrible situation is made even worse as official systems cannot adapt to take account of the carers’ youth. Nicole is refused permission to accompany her mother in an ambulance after a suicide attempt and even basic activities—securing a prescription—become obstacles as the role undertaken by the young carers is not recognised. The strain upon the carers is hard to ignore—Jade starts fights and vandalises school property—yet rarely acknowledged by anyone in a position to offer practical assistance rather than just compassion.
The play is structured as three individual but overlapping monologues with the voices occasionally merging on key phrases—is this my life now?. Although the stories are grim, the overall mood is one of admiration and respect. At no point do any of the carers consider giving up or abandoning responsibilities which are more than they should have to accept. Their attitude goes beyond stoical acceptance towards heroism.
Perhaps the most valid way of judging the impact of the play is upon individuals rather than society as a whole. There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK and most of them are not acknowledged. Adolescence is a difficult period and the pressure to fit in and be like everyone else is hard to resist. The understated courage and dignity displayed by the carers whose stories are told in the play may, hopefully, help youngsters who are going through similar experiences to acknowledge, rather than conceal, the strain they are under and seek assistance; maybe even take pride in their achievements.
Reviewer: David Cunningham