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Social work takes centre stage in Edinburgh festival play

Posted on 12/07/2016 by


The Edinburgh fringe festival is most commonly associated with standup, sketch shows and students messing about. But among the beer and comedy, a more serious play will take to the stage. 

Villain follows the story of a child protection social worker, Rachel, who is hounded by the press and public for the outcome of a case involving a very young child.

It’s a story that will be familiar to many, with echoes of cases like Baby P, Victoria Climbie and Liam Fee. But the difference with Villain is that, as a one-woman play, it allows the social worker to tell her side of the story.

Writer and director Martin Murphy has friends and family in the profession, so has seen the impact the job can have on people. And he found it interesting that, although social workers are trying to help people, they are often vilified.

“It’s a sector where you’re dedicated to trying to help people, essentially, in the same way as a doctor,” he says. “But you don’t seem to get that same level of absolute scrutiny or witch hunts towards people in the medical profession.”

Villain tells Rachel’s story as she moves through her 20s. She goes through a fairly typical millennial path: leaves university, moves to London, gets the first job that comes her way (in sales), and drinks too much. But as she grows up, she realises she needs something more fulfilling from her work: she wants to help other people. So she becomes a social worker, which she loves.

But there is a constant pressure, too many cases, never enough time with families, no management support. And, suddenly, a case has gone very badly wrong, her picture is in the papers, she is facing death threats on Twitter and the blame for everything is put solely onto her.

It’s essentially the nightmare that every social worker has. For Murphy, the inspiration came in particular from one person, who was enormously affected by being a social worker.

“I saw it absolutely drive them into the ground, where there was just nowhere to hand the work up to .. so they had to just take on more and more to the point where it made them very unwell,” he says.

The Baby P case was in Murphy’s mind when he was writing, but he didn’t want it to be tied to one particular case or story, so he combined different anecdotes and stories he’d heard from people working in different areas of social work.

“I wanted to get the most interesting bits I’d heard from people and try and get that all within one story which should hopefully be entertaining, but also in some way educating to an audience who maybe wouldn’t know anything about that sort of world.”

For actor Maddie Rice, who plays the role of Rachel, rehearsing Villain has been a chance to find out more about social work. “It’s one of those professions where you don’t ever hear … a lot of positive stuff,” she says. “I think not enough people really know about how terrifying it is, and how much work goes into it, and how caring you have to be.”

The character of Rachel does have many flaws: she is a bit selfish, gets too drunk, kisses other people’s boyfriends. But it’s when she is trying to be a better person and do some good that she is attacked. As Rice says, “Her whole journey is about wanting to do something good and not sitting around just making money and getting drunk.”

The play hammers home this contradiction, and the particular vitriol and blame that is reserved by the media and public for social workers. As Murphy points out, we don’t know the names of bankers who caused the financial crisis, but there are social workers and managers whose name many people know.

Murphy argues that entertainment can be “the easiest way to get a message across”: people can put their guard up if they feel that they are being told what to think, while TV and film are about telling a story. “If we did have people working within social work within TV shows, theatre shows, that are portrayed in a good light and show the good work that they are doing, that would come into people’s consciousness,” he says.

In the meantime, Villain, which is showing in Edinburgh between the 4 and 28 August at the Underbelly Cowgate venue, will bring a story about social work to people who may not have knowledge about the profession. “I suppose what I’d want people to come away from it thinking is why are social workers generally seen the way they are,” says Murphy. “Why are they held in a negative light, why are they seen as meddling, interfering?” Hopefully, a few people’s minds will be changed.



Source: The Guardian