Growing up is tricky at the best of times, navigating the complex choreography of schoolyard bullies, endless homework assignments, grumpy teachers, and the sudden headrush of hopeless crushes and hormones. So imagine juggling all this and then adding an ill parent into the equation.
Invisible Army, written by Victoria Beesley and developed over the space of a year and a half with young carers at Glasgow South West Carers Centre, aims to show the reality of life for young people who are looking after family members with illness, disabilities or alcohol and drug problems. Yet the play neatly sidesteps full on heaviness by injecting a surreal twist, lifting the story out of the ordinary with humour, music and dance, while still preserving the vital elements of poignancy and emotional impact.
Directed by Emily Reutlinger, the one-act play follows a day in the life of Robbie (Michael Abubakar), a young boy caring for his mum (Rosalind Sydney) who is living with the debilitating aftereffects of a stroke. Life for them is divided into ‘before the incident’ and ‘after the incident’, revealing how illness can shift reality into a different dimension altogether. Alice Wilson’s inventive set design helps bring this to the fore, with Robbie at one point falling into the ‘crack’, a space of unwitnessed struggle which graphically symbolises the risks faced by young carers in a society that is all too often unaware of their existence.
Beesley seems to suggest that imagination can either offer a welcome escape into fantasy or risk spiralling out of control. The blurring of the real and the imagined is at once the source of humour and a sign of overwhelming emotion, as we follow Robbie’s attempts to cope with all the competing demands of a single day. Interludes of dance (choreographed by Tony Mills), music (performed by Dan Beesley on stage) and dramatic lighting (Elle Taylor) shift the mood between mental suffering and madcap hilarity, touching on moments of heartbreaking honesty before skittering off into wit and physical comedy. As the young carers write in the play’s programme: ‘It was important to us that it wasn’t all doom and gloom’, and this mix of emotions reflects their lived reality, experiencing both the positive aspect of caring for loved ones along with the negative effects of anxiety, exhaustion, missed days of school and social isolation.
According to the Carers Trust website, there are an estimated 700,000 carers under the age of 18 in the UK, coping with the practical running of households - cleaning, cooking, shopping - as well as the physical symptoms and emotional needs of the people they care for. While the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, coming into force in 2017, promises to provide more assistance for adult and young carers from local authorities, Invisible Army highlights how easy it is for these young people to miss out. As the narrator tells us about Robbie: ‘He started becoming invisible the day he brought his mum home from the hospital’.
In a context of slashed services and benefits, and an ageing population in which Carers Trust estimates three out of five of us will become carers, Invisible Army focuses our attention on the importance of peer support and positive social affirmation. Terra Incognita, Beesley’s Glasgow-based arts organisation that shares ‘the extraordinary stories of ordinary people’ such as Robbie, shows us the transformative power of creativity and art. Connecting the invisible army of young carers in co-creation, this play helps to highlight a social phenomenon that might otherwise remain unseen, harnessing their resilience and emphasising empowerment over pity. As the young carers put it themselves: ‘We wouldn’t change our situation. It’s who we are.’ Faced with such a reality, it’s surely up to the rest of us to ensure they receive the recognition and support they deserve.
by Clare Blackburne
Invisible Army was part of Headspace, an annual programme of events held at Platform as part of SMHAFF. Headspace's Epic Celebration Day takes place on Friday 28 October, to mark Platform's first decade. Click here for the full Headspace programme.