Viv Hardwick talks to Newcastle-based playwright Paddy Campbell about his decision to shine a light on a shadowy area of children’s services

THE hard facts of life have become art for former Newcastle Children’s Home key worker turned playwright Paddy Campbell, who has gone back to his eight years in the care system to highlight the plight of 18-year-olds ill-equipped to join the world of adults.

His new play, Leaving, opens its tour at Tyneside’s Northern Stage from tonight (February 23) until Saturday, March 4, and has captured the attention of young people, MPs, social workers, Ofsted and staff from local authorities and children’s homes.

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“The initial focus of the play was what the experience was like for young people to leave the care system, which I think nearly everyone has experience of because there is that ‘leaving home’ element to all lives. But what a dramatic cut-off it is in the care system. Most youngsters have an avenue to go back if things don’t work out. Kids in children’s homes don’t have that option,” says Campbell.

“What’s brilliant about the interviews we got is how resilient these young people have been in the face of very difficult circumstances. They can also be quite humorous about their experience and use humour as a way of talking about what happened to them. Although the things they are talking about can be quite harrowing I think there’s a lot of spirit and tenacity in this story,” adds the creator of other productions such as Wet House (2013), Day of the Flymo (2015) and short works for Newcastle’s Live Theatre and the National Theatre.

“A lot of the young people we interview were kids I’d worked with in the past and I was quite well-positioned to get their views,” says Campbell when asked about the notoriously difficult task of communicating with children who have suffered chaotic lives before being taken away from birth families.

“The balance you have to strike is to making Leaving, as you suggest, watchable and you can’t just have relentless hardship showing. People would very quickly switch off from that, so we’ve tried to present these stories in a way that the audience can relate to and engage with. Otherwise we’re beating them over the head with hardship,” he adds.

Jackie Lye, Rosie Stancliffe, Matt Howdon, Kate Okello and Luke Maddison have been cast in the roles of the youngsters by Campbell’s collaborators Curious Monkey theatre company, which was founded by Northumbria University graduate Amy Golding in 2011.

Northern Ireland-born Campbell feels he’s shedding light on an area of society that rarely appears in the public consciousness and has hardly featured in theatre work. The children’s home in which he worked still exists and the current children in care there have been involved in a series of workshops inspired by Leaving and been given the chance to shadow the creative team involved in the production.

“It’s been two years since I worked there and it’s been really good catching up with the staff and youngsters. When I spoke to the Shadow Children’s Secretary the thinking is that 18-year-olds should be given longer to adjust and some should stay in care up the age of 23, but it always comes down to money and cost. The belief seems to be there that is should happen, but the actual practicalities of making that happen remain a bit vague. A lot of the time it depends on local authorities as to how well services work,” he says.

Campbell feels that Newcastle’s social services have done quite well in comparison to Sunderland and other North-East areas. “Its inspections have generally been quite good. The playwright in me should have been beating myself up that Sunderland went into special measures at the time I was busy focusing on Newcastle. I suppose that a lot of my connections were in the Tyneside area so it made sense to use those,” he says.

The playwright wanted to talk to those operating the system rather than attempting to point the finger of blame at parents who can’t cope. “I was aware of the problem and felt that these different children’s experience could give an overview and let the audience work out and have a discussion as to where the problems lie. I obviously have an opinion about how things go wrong, but it’s impossible to get that full view in a couple of hours of drama. I was keen not to start out with an agenda and try to hammer that home to an audience. It doesn’t make great drama if you’re just beating people over the head with an issue,” says Campbell.

His career in care has seen the system move from trying to keep families together to social services being taken to task for not taking action early enough following the deaths of children like Baby P.

“I think the future is very worrying. I have heard people talk about steps towards privatisation in terms of children’s services, which would be a really dangerous thing when there’s a profit element introduced to the situation. The outsourcing of children’s services to private companies would be a very dangerous step, but there have been rumours about things heading in that direction. I think you can only cut things so far before services are on the brink of no longer coping. The head of Newcastle’s services has said that any further cuts and it will have to look at dropping some frontline social workers. It is quite a frightening time for children’s services,” Campbell says.

If the young Paddy Campbell came to his older self today and enquired about a caring job what would he say?

“I went out at Christmas with my former colleagues and I felt really bad for them because I’ve never seen a group of people so despondent about what they’re doing. Times have been tough and only those going above and beyond what jobs demand of them can give the kids the support they need... and that shouldn’t be the case.”

n Leaving, Northern Stage, runs until Saturday, March 4. 8pm. Box Office: 0191-230-5151 or northernstage.co.uk