“With my hand on my heart, I don’t know”
Brutally effective, unerringly inquisitive, indisputably compelling. January may only just have finished but it is not hard to imagine that we won’t be talking about Chris Thompson’s Carthage when it comes to totting up the best new plays of the year come December. A debut piece of writing, Thompson has 12 years experience as a social worker and it is that which he has channelled into this play, which takes an unblinking look at the ruthless realities of the care system and whether it might indeed do as much damage as good.
The story centres on the case of Tommy Anderson – a young lad born in jail and fifteen years later, found dead in jail after officers tried to restrain him during a violent episode. Fragmented scenes skitter around this period trying to find the answers about who to blame and so Tommy’s mother, his social worker and his prison guard become the focus of the play – their actions (or inactions) exposed, their behaviours examined, their responsibilities explored.
And born out of his hard-won experience, Thompson bravely holds back from offering any easy answers, or any definitive answers at all. He offers beautifully rounded characters, full of the complexities of real life and the complicated motivations of those trying to do a good job, even as they are failing. So Claire-Louise Cordwell’s gobby mother is the embodiment of terrible parenting but herself the product of an abusive home, and Lisa Palfrey’s social worker Sue has become so disillusioned at the impossibility of helping those who don’t want to be helped that she’s basically checked out.
But both women are also cuttingly funny, mining a dark vein of humour which somewhat alleviates the atmosphere and both actors deliver perfect comic timing. Toby Wharton’s prison officer Marcus is much more serious though, much more guilt-ridden as he is taken to court for his part in Tommy’s death and the only one who seems to recognise an inkling of how rotten the system can be, yet helpless to change it as its giant wheels grind through case after case.
Robert Hastie’s production is brilliantly conceived too, full of insistent visual clues. The scene changes overlap so that even as we change place in time, accusatory glares or fingers of blame still get passed on; whether deliberate or not (as it tails away towards the end) the entrances through one door and exits through the other reinforces the endless nature of the vicious cycle of abuse; and the blandly institutional design by James Perkins, starkly lit by Gary Bowman, highlights just how dehumanised the whole process becomes. An excellent debut for Thompson and an excellent play for all concerned.