Published 26 June 2017
Last week, a group of us went to see Groomed at Soho Theatre, written and performed by Patrick Sandford. It is a play about child sexual abuse and the impact it has long after the abuse has taken place.
We sat in the bar beforehand, nursing a glass of water to placate the heat, apprehensive about what we were about to see. We made our way up the wooden stairs to the top of the building where we were ushered into a performance space under the rafters. In the hallway, a saxophonist watched the audience file in, clicking on the golden keys. This is the familiar setting of immersive theatre where the audience sits almost on the stage. We are almost in the actor’s personal space. The stage itself is simple and gives little away about what is to come.
Patrick walks in. He sits on a desk and listens to a couple of notes fluttering away. His name is really Patrick and everything he will say is true. Or at least it was true, when he was nine years old. He tells us he is 65 and has written this play over many years, exploring how to tell the truth, how to disclose a secret and to tell his story.
Patrick now sits down at the desk, slips into the persona of a teacher and we are away, with him, captivated by his storytelling. A few key characters emerge: a child, a teacher and an older, evolving, Patrick. Along the way, Adolphe Sax, who invented the Saxophone, despite a lifetime of suffering, and Hiro Onoda, the Japanese soldier who refused until 1974 to accept that the Second World War had ended, will also contribute their stories which Patrick weaves into his own.
His play is a challenge and a gift which deserves to be taken up and treasured. It offers a gripping insight into the mind, body and heart of a young boy abused by a trusted adult in a position of authority, a torment nobody guessed. Patrick takes you with him through the jerks and jolts of his emotions, battles and anger with incredible honesty. Of course, as he acknowledges himself, he only grazes the surface of the tremendous storms which gather inside but it is enough to open the door, to let the audience in. It is a two-way relationship. Patrick reaches out to his audience: it is part of telling the story.
Bearing witness. Giving recognition. Finding that ‘quality of presence’ which allows trust. In an ironic twist, the healee becomes the healer. If the receiving audience bears witness to Patrick’s story and offer grounding to his journey, Groomedbears witness for the multitude of others who are not heard or seen. The play speaks of all those who did not see, did not want to know, who perhaps even today still refuse to acknowledge the behaviour of abusers – particularly, those figures of authority such as teachers or council boards. The play evokes the challenges of coming forward, the fear and frustration of not being believed, the fear of the confidence falling on dramatising or deaf ears.
A very courageous thing – amongst many incredibly courageous things which were said – was the highlighting of the absence of support for adults who are attracted to children. The crime is the abuse, but there is scant support for those who want help to prevent them abusing. Part of the general blindness of society to child sexual abuse: our own modern Oedipal tale.
The outstanding qualities of this play are borne by the openness of Patrick and his lithe script. He furthers the opportunity for dialogue with a Q&A session following the performance. Last night, members from Survivors UK joined the actor on the panel. More honest conversation is a key part of breaking the taboo; therapists explain how the play has helped them better understand their clients; survivors vocalise their own experiences and journeys and we, the public, are educated and humbled by the honesty and strength of character of all of those working in this emotionally challenging field.
The play underlines the need to educate the public about abuse, how it happens and how those who perpetrate it will try to cover their tracks. It is also in integrating these stories into our personal lives that slowly, healing can take place. One out of five women in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual attention before they are 18. Current figures estimate that one in six men have experienced the same. Many, like Patrick, will take decades before they speak out. Others may never share what happened to them. The task of bearing witness is gargantuan – but Groomed opens a door.