Written following six months of research and interviews in 2018 and 2019, Kenny Emson’s The Sh*t is a hard-hitting play about the challenging world of youth work. The play allows us access to a series of court-mandated sessions between youth worker Eric (Lladel Bryant) and teenager Daniel (Dillon Scott-Lewis), who’s just been released from juvenile detention. Though initially resistant, Daniel gradually begins to open up in the face of Eric’s gentle persistence, revealing the scared child behind the bravado, and the two develop a mutual respect. But through separate scenes between Eric and his unseen boss Sara (Samantha Béart), we learn about the budget cuts and bureaucracy that tie his hands, and which despite his best intentions, limit the amount of help he’s really able to provide.
Against Caitlin Mawhinney’s backdrop of discarded plastic chairs (the poignant true significance of which only becomes obvious at the end of the play), and under harsh institutional lighting, the two characters begin as adversaries, each trying to stare the other down in grim silence – and it’s testament to the quality of the performances from Lladel Bryant and Dillon Scott-Lewis that even before either of them says a word, the dynamic between them makes for compelling viewing. Daniel understands better than anyone what he needs – to be removed from a situation that’s guaranteed to drag him back to his old life – and his frustration that that’s the one thing Eric can’t do for him is palpable. On the other side of the room, Eric knows exactly what the young man is going through, but struggles with the knowledge that his involvement can only go so far, and that ultimately Daniel’s progress will be reflected merely as a series of black and white checkboxes. Meanwhile the faceless Sara represents a system that’s holding both of them back – not through choice, but because there simply isn’t enough money to really make much difference.
Emson’s writing is heartfelt and real; language plays a key part in the development of the two characters’ relationship, helping them find common ground where none seemed to exist. Neither of them is quite what they seem at first glance, and it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see the true Daniel begin to emerge as the play progresses – a boy with ambition, humour and intelligence who could have thrived had he grown up in different circumstances. Emson offers us a glimpse of what could be, before slamming the door in a conclusion that feels depressingly inevitable.
As a piece of theatre, The Sh*t is very good – it’s often funny, with great performances and intelligent writing. But is it enjoyable? Maybe not. It makes the audience uncomfortably aware of our own privilege, and of the difficulties faced by young people all over the UK who are trapped in a life they never wanted through no fault of their own. And it’s infuriating to see the people who desperately want to help prevented from doing so, all because those with the power to provide funding and support consistently not only fail to provide it, but judge and belittle the very people they’re failing. The final scene of the play powerfully captures the conveyor belt nature of Eric’s work, and while it can’t answer the question of what needs to happen to break this never-ending cycle, it at least asks it, and that’s a good start.
The Sh*t runs at Bush Theatre until 23rd April as part of Essex on Stage.