The fragile nature of the mother-child bond and the frailties of social services are on show in British playwright Chris Lee’s Shallow Slumber, which makes its Sydney debut at NIDA’s Parade Theatre on July 4 as part of the drama school’s Independent Production Program.
As director and fellow Brit Peter Mountford told the Star Observer, the rehearsal process for the play — a two-hander, with actors Catherine Terracini and Rebecca Johnston playing a young social worker and a new mum respectively — had been trying for all involved.
“We’re all in tears a lot. It’s such a heavy subject and we didn’t realise until we got into the rehearsal room just how much it’d affect us,” he said.
“I can’t watch the news at night at the moment, and I know the actors have had some trouble sleeping.”
All the more harrowing for the cast and crew is the knowledge that Shallow Slumber is based on real-life events.
Lee used his years of experience as a social worker to inform the work, but took much from the infamous case of ‘Baby-P’, a 17-month-old boy who died in London in 2007 after suffering more than 50 injuries over an eight-month period, during which he was repeatedly seen by children’s services and health professionals.
“He was seen by dozens and dozens of social workers through his life, and yet somehow no one picked up on the seriousness of what was going on — that he was being tortured,” Mountford said.
“It’s had a massive effect on social work in the UK.”
And as Mountford and cast found when they had an in-rehearsal Q&A session with a Sydney social worker, the issues at hand sadly translate to Australia.
“Everything she told us about is in the play, and for things from the play that we thought perhaps weren’t quite believable she’d say, ‘Oh no, I’ve seen that’,” he sighed.
The social worker also gave them an understanding of exactly how a child could fall through the cracks in the system, with understaffed social and health services stretched to their limits.
“We learned social workers themselves don’t necessarily have all that much support. Once you’re qualified, you might have a case in your first week that’s really heavy — it’s not as if you’re eased into it all gently.”
That’s exactly the case in Shallow Slumber, in which young, mentally fragile first-time mother Dawn finds herself paired with equally inexperienced social worker Moira.
“The story reflects the Baby-P case in that the social worker makes a few mistakes and doesn’t quite pick up on a few things that are happening,” Mountford said.
“Without giving too much away, something happens to the baby and the social worker is blamed just as heavily as the mother.
“The media are really quick to label people as evil in these situations, but this play doesn’t do that. It lets the audience make up their own mind about the characters, with no definite answers given.”
INFO: Shallow Slumber, NIDA Parade Theatres, July 4 – 14. Tickets through Ticketek.