Social workers have had a notoriously difficult time during recent years, from the media fallout over the Baby P tragedy to fears of job loss due to financial cutbacks. Soho Theatre’s forthcoming production of Shallow Slumber strips away the layers of stereotype surrounding the system, instead focusing on the individual lives of those receiving and giving social care. In the hands of award-winning playwright and lifelong social worker Chris Lee, this is a show that looks beyond the headlines to put the real story of the search for social welfare on the stage.

Shallow Slumber is a taut two-hander centred on the relationship between a troubled young mother and her social worker. Under the direction of recent UK Film Council Breakthrough Brit Mary Nighy, Olivier nominee Alexandra Gilbreath plays Moira. When we first meet Moira, she is a shell of her former self, devastated by as yet unknown tragedies. The action moves backwards in time as the play unfolds, building the tension of Moira’s relationship with her ‘client’ Dawn before finally arriving at the moment when Moira first visits Dawn’s home, full of enthusiasm and optimism at working with a young mother with a history of dysfunctional behaviour.

Gilbreath observes that “your first instinct is what happened? Why are these two having the most extraordinary relationship? Act 1 is these two women who have a history and you try to understand what their relationship is. Act 2 is half way through their story and Act 3 is the beginning.” Gilbreath explains that the show begins when Moira “comes back after eight years after being released from prison, and my life has completely disintegrated. I’ve lost my job; I’ve been hounded. I’ve literally had to start again. The whole experience crushed me. It’s both of them putting their lives back,” she elaborates. “Dawn’s crime is pretty horrific, but you don’t really know what she’s done. You can kind of put two and two together but you don’t really know the hows and the whys until right at the very end.”

In light of playwright Lee’s 20 years of experience in social work, Gilbreath expands on how deeply the play feels rooted in reality. “You know that it’s coming from a place so accurate that there is a notion that – not that he [Lee] deals with issues as extreme as this [on a day to day basis] – but that the issues are there. How far do you go? As a social worker do you literally pour yourself into it or do you get to a point where your day starts at this and ends at this?” Sympathising with the difficulties of the profession, Gilbreath states, “I think they do a remarkable job. I remember I was speaking to Chris right from the start. I said, ‘What I don’t understand is, honestly, do you live with that constantly? That if you put a foot wrong and something seriously tragic happens, they say it’s your fault? That you should have paid attention?’ Every step of the way, social workers have to be accountable. In our scenario something horrific happens and you have to ask: could I ever, in my position as social worker, have stopped her?”

If Shallow Slumber reveals the human side of a highly publicised profession, how does the play engage with recent media coverage? “There are many plays and creative expressions about how the media is everywhere, and we know that’s true. We know that it’s a part of ourselves. The presence of the media is such because events [that have occured in the past] were so horrific.” Shallow Slumber engages, to an extent, with our appetite for the macabre. Gilbreath notes that “there is something about us that wants to know more if something terrible happens. Only today I was reading in the Metro, in Scotland they found a woman’s mummified baby in her flat and this baby has been dead for some time. If I wasn’t doing this play I would have gone, ‘That’s awful and then (turning the page), let’s read the guilty pleasures’. Getting actively involved with a play like this means that you are interested in what’s actually happening as opposed to going, ‘Oh, OK.””

Gilbreath foresees that audience reaction will be highly subjective, as the play “really requires a lot from the audience”. Some members may detach themselves from the emotionally exhausting subject matter whereas others may choose to actively engage with the characters. “Our third character is Amy the baby, but the fourth character, as always, is the people who walk in, and come and sit and be involved in it. All theatre involves some kind of participation. It’s not like going to the movies or switching on the TV. By actively going to the theatre you are participating in a real, live event. What I find intriguing is that the audience will make such profound judgements on us and the characters. You might think that there is something quite weird about the relationship. There is so much left unsaid for you [the audience] to question the stereotypes of a young woman who perhaps didn’t have the best start in life.” This is part of a larger tendency to label people that exists within and beyond the theatre. “You do make judgements. Someone who’s on a council estate, father absent, very difficult relationship with mother, experience of drugs, sleeping rough. So do we assume Dawn needs a social worker, because she’s now had a baby and she’s bringing it up alone? My character Moira is the middle class, educated woman and Dawn asks, ‘What would happen to you, if you weren’t coping?’ She has to admit, ‘I suppose I’d be given the benefit of the doubt.’ Who makes that call? It’s like post-natal depression; it doesn’t matter what class you are from.”

At the heart of Shallow Slumber are two women who have formed a complex relationship, shared a life changing experience and must now deal with their past in order to find a way to move on. In aiming to contextualise the kind of tragedies we have grown accustomed to seeing on the news, Shallow Slumber tackles our desensitisation towards these horrific stories. As Gilbreath notes, “You kind of read it, you immediately form an empathy for it, but in some ways you detach yourself from it and move on.” But these are the stories that need to be told and experienced in a way that only the theatre can.

Shallow Slumber runs at the Soho Theatre from 24 January to 18 February. Tickets start at £10 and are available from or on 020 7478 0100. This is a sponsored article.