Demanding, challenging, and crucial watching, Care Takers is a damning play about homophobic bullying and the dangers of indifference.
A boy is being bullied in Ms Lawson’s class. She thinks it’s because his peers believe he’s gay. But can she make deputy head Mrs Rutter do what needs to be done before it’s too late, in Care Takers?
It might not come as a surprise to anyone, but I was homophobically bullied at school. Fortunately, it was never to the extent that many others have been bullied, causing them to self-harm, or worse, commit suicide. I was also very lucky to have a school staff that were supportive, which is rare in such a rural part of the country and especially in the days when Section 28 was still law. Therefore, it’s even less of a surprise that Care Takers was going to be a show I was absolutely going to see at the Edinburgh Fringe, but rather than looking at homophobic bullying from the victim’s point of view, it’s from the perspective of those who supposedly look after them: the teachers.
Billy Cowan’s bold play adds a provocative complexity to the issue of homophobic bullying in schools. It goes beyond merely accusing staff and leaders of institutions of latent homophobia, but looks at various other factors that spell out a dire warning that inaction and indifference are just as deadly as perpetuating prejudice. Funding, and internal and external politics are mixed into the sticky and volatile issue with intelligence and hard to swallow bluntness that makes Care Takers an incredibly comprehensive and unapologetic examination of things beyond the obvious.
The same came be said about Cowan’s characters. Even though one of the teachers certainly comes off better than the other, Care Takers carefully makes us sympathises and enlighten us to the delicate conundrums of school management, as well as calling out discrimination both conscious and unconscious. Indeed, the back and forth between Ms Lawson and Mrs Rutter is thrilling, varied, and dynamic, with Mrs Rutter in particularly playing a game of charming politik and rhetoric, as well as moments of genuine personality and concern. You’re never quite sure about how things in Care Takers is going to wind up because it becomes so intricate and unpredictable in the balance of power between Ms Lawson and Mrs Rutter, and the push and pulls of myriad factors on the topic, that anything could happen. Then, the underlying indirect narrative of Care Takers goes somewhere you might not have expected, getting us to think about other consequences of homophobic bullying that we may not have considered before.
The only thing that makes it difficult to watch is your personal connection to the topic. Admittedly, I found Care Takers hard-going because of the anger and bitterness it sparked as someone who has experienced homophobia in my own schooling, and it took a lot of effort to continue to stay engaged without letting myself become so upset that I would have needed to leave the show. But these are exactly the emotions Care Takers should be evoking. If you don’t leave Care Takers troubled and/or furious then you’re part of the problem. All in all, Care Takers is a masterfully written and tense piece that makes this a play that is as vital as it is intense and damning.
Direction & Production
There is an excellent production behind Care Takers, even though it doesn’t seem like much. Apart from a desk and some chairs, there are markings on the stage that mark out the perimeters of the deputy head’s office, visually playing with the theme of boundaries that is inherent in the text. Then, sound and lighting design, and movement direction causes an intense flurry of activity between scene changes, signifying the passing of time, that doesn’t give you any breather or a chance to disconnect from the brutal text.
Cowan’s direction constantly ensures that the dialogue is pacey and varied. Being over an hour of straight dialogue, this is actually quite a feat to have achieved, adding in sudden snaps and sinister lulls in the energy that either take you by surprise or build a tense crescendo, making Care Takers a tight thriller in its own right.
Penelope McDonald as Mrs Rutter and Emma Romy-Jones as Ms Lawson give two blistering performances. Romy-Jones trembles with a controlled rage and injustice that is heartbreaking to watch, especially in the constant distress of being fobbed off by evasive excuses. McDonald is bullishly cold and formal as Mrs Rutter, but manages to let the moments of genuine sincerity that make her more than just the monster you want her to be. Both McDonald and Romy-Jones bring a volatility to Care Takers that is impossible to ignore and not be gripped by. Two of the strongest and most electric performances this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, they make Care Takers an immensely powerful show.
Important, enraging, and essential, Care Takers is a bellowing, crucial, and finely written outrage that means to send shockwaves through education without apology or mercy.