I’m at a girls’ school in a delightfully traditional building overlooking Parsons Green. It would have been a lot easier to get here had there been any Wimbledon trains on the District Line when I needed them, but never mind — I’m at Lady Margaret School now.
Y Touring — a company whose interesting activities and ideas I have followed for nearly twenty years — is doing the last performance of its spring tour to schools this afternoon: Starfish by Judith Johnson.
The play is fascinating, sensitively done and deeply moving, although the reactions of the mature, thoughtful 15 year old girls - the whole of Year 10 - are almost as interesting.
We are in a small Northern town. Saira, a young doctor (Hanna Kass - very good), comes back to practise in her father’s old surgery following his death. At the centre of the story is bright, kind, 20-something Michael (Max Saunders Singer, pictured above with Hanna Kass) a young teacher who develops variant CJD. The play charts the diagnosis, the disease, and the heartbreak that follows for those around him. Saira, deeply attached to Michael, is nevertheless a constant advocate for the need for fair clinical trials, the danger of untried treatments and the requirement of individuals to play their part in the process. But Michael’s dad, Adrian (Andrew Hobday) wants to prolong his son’s life at any cost.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Michael, Shannon (Susannah Freeman, pictured right) one of his students, begins to fight her Social Phobia through an online existence in Second Life which helps her to grow more confident. She continues, however, to struggle in the real world. Could a properly managed trial in a virtual world equip her with the resilience she needs to face her fears?
The Lady Margaret girls are led through a brief introductory session and there’s a well managed discussion at the end during which everyone votes on ethical questions using individual hand held devices. The results are displayed instantly on a screen at the end of the room. ‘A bit like “Who wants to be a millionaire?” ’ the facilitator jokes to lighten the atmosphere, well aware that several girls are in tears at the end of the play and one has left the room followed by a friend to comfort her.
Yes, Starfish is a very powerful piece and anyone watching it is bound to travel his or her own journey. I too had to brush away tears as I thought about my father who agreed to several untried experiments - which may have hastened his decline into the renal failure which eventually killed him - when he was suffering from Guilluame Barre Syndrome, a hideous, incurable neurological condition. But my Dad, like Adrian in the play, regarded it as a ‘nothing to lose’ situation and was willing to try absolutely anything. A valid point of view, perhaps.
The play has attracted a number of accolades. John Flint, Post-16 Learning Manager, Harry Carlton School, Loughbrough found Starfish ‘A very positive experience and useful in the sense that it seeks to break down the necessary pragmatism of the false demarcations between discrete subject areas such as science and morality and hence philosophy and ethics - an interesting step towards holistic education.’
John Billington is Head of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) at Carter Community School in Poole. ‘The way in which drama can introduce complicated issues and multi-layered discussion is a constant source of delight,’ he said of Starfish.
Y Touring, the first company to work in the arena of health, sex education and science ethics, is Central YMCA’s award-winning Touring Theatre Company, established in 1989.
“Through creating high quality theatre and drama we aim to highlight important, often difficult, current issues and empower its audiences of young people and adults to generate change in themselves, others and society,” artistic director Nigel Townsend tells me.
But - and this is a big ‘but’ - the company does not (definitely not) do all this at the expense of producing powerful theatre. Like the rest of the audience I was totally absorbed by the Starfish narrative and both impressed and shaken by Saunders Singer’s depiction of a severely disabled, wheelchair-bound, palsied young man who had been playing tennis only a few weeks earlier.
Accompanying the play is a virtual online world, Steamfish, which allows students to experience a clinical trial based on James Lind’s initial clinical trial for scurvy. The virtual world combines education and entertainment as students take on a quest to find a way off an island after a shipwreck, while also taking part in a clinical trial.
Steamfish has been developed by Y Touring in partnership with Rezzable Productions Ltd. It is a secure, private, online environment where students will ‘meet’ only other students and Y Touring and Rezzable staff.
Photos (c) Robert Workman
There’s an audio recording of ‘Starfish’ accessible via Y Touring’s website. Do have a listen and share your thoughts.