Theatre503 is dedicated to launching new and promising playwrights, and is doing just that with Joe Hammond’s debut play Where the Mangrove Grows. Under the experienced directorship of Tamara Harvey, whose recent work includes productions of Educating Rita and Plague Over England, this looks to be a poignant tale from the first-time writer.

The play tells the story of 12-year-old Shaun, his experience of living in care, and his relationship with his care worker, Mike. As Hammond explains of the character, “he’s facing up to the fact that his mum doesn’t want him and probably never has, and life has made him a rather volatile character – he has charm but he can be quite wild”. Harvey summarises: “It’s about a boy with a very big imagination, who’s trapped in a very small life at the point at which we meet him. It’s about the relationship between him and his care worker, and how that grows and develops as more opportunities are lost, as he gets more and more trapped in the attic room where we spend the play.”

Shaun’s imagination and his increasing insularity are central to the play. Hammond elaborates: “I think the play ultimately is about his capacity to imagine his own escape. It’s a celebration, really, of thwarted potential, andof the triumph of the imagination – because ultimately that’s the one asset he has that enables him to escape”. For Harvey, this is also the heart of the play: “one of the things that really appealed to me from the moment I picked the play up is that in the writing there isn’t a distinction necessarily – that the world of Shaun’s imagination is as real to him as the world that he finds himself in, if not more real. So that’s been our aim really, to come at it from that angle that one is absolutely as real as the other, rather than drawing a line between them.”

The subject of children in care is one that has interested Hammod for a while. “The play goes back to when I was 18, when I got a job temporarily, as a sort of gap year, in a children’s psychiatric hospital. I was probably too young myself to be doing that, and pretty un-sorted out in my own life, and I found it a really, really tough experience”. One occasion stands out in particular. “I came home and I remember sobbing for a long time, and I think it just stayed with me for a long time”. This experience not only inspired the play a few years later, but has also lead to further work with children in care. “It’s kind of a curiosity that since writing the play I’ve actually worked a lot more as an adult with young people who have emotional and behavioral difficulties. I think when people know the basics about the story they sort of assume I have this extensive experience of working with young people who have these problems and wrote a play as the result of it, when in fact it’s almost the opposite way round – I had this experience as a teenager of working in this environment that remained unresolved for me, and then I wrote the play, and I think that it’s so inspired me that I ended up making career choices where I’ll go in as a writer or as a teacher to work with groups of young people who are in care.”

As a playwright at the beginning of his career, Hammond’s first venture into theatre has been promising. “In terms of the experience of working on the play, I feel I’ve been very fortunate, because when we teamed up with Theatre503 we really took a punt on approaching a director with fantastic standing in the industry”. In particular, the chance to work with Harvey has been exhilarating for him. “I’m full of admiration for Tamara [Harvey] for taking on this raw, challenging, shocking piece of theatre, and for wanting to work with an inexperienced writer like myself. Tamara’s someone who has the pick of jobs – she’s at that stage in her career – so to have chosen this is wonderful”.

So what was it about this play that drew Harvey to direct it? She explains, “I fell in love with it really. It’s a dark play and there is cruelty in it, and things that are difficult to look at, but at its heart there’s a real beauty”. For her, it was Hammond’s way of telling this story, not just its subject matter, that made the difference: “There’s something that Joe [Hammond]’s done rather brilliantly. He found a very simple way of telling a story that is very complex and has many, many layers – there’s a kind of purity to his storytelling that really appealed. There aren’t very many plays where you pick them up and you just want to read them right through to the end, so when you come across one of those there’s just this moment of ‘well I’ve got to do this now, because this is really good and I want to get in the room with it’”.

The pair have nothing but praise for each other. As Hammond says, “it’s been for me an amazing experience to work with someone so intelligent, so creative”, while for Harvey, “Joe has actually been that kind of perfect collaborator – he’s got a very clear idea of what he’s written and he knows what’s important to him, but he’s also been completely open to any changes that we’ve discussed or moments that we haven’t understood, so that’s been fantastic”. Both are also exceptionally pleased with the cast. Hammond says “it’s an amazing cast, so as someone having their first play out, I feel really privileged to have this team”.  Harvey continues: “I’m very fortunate in the actors that we found. And I think what’s been really lovely is that though they’re very different ages and at very different stages of their careers, we’ve found a common language and we’ve found a way of working together.” In particular, she says, “Charlie Jones who’s playing Shaun is so ridiculously mature. It’s not always easy to find someone who can play a young boy but who has the wisdom and maturity to understand the demands of the role. And we’ve found in David [Birrell] and Mark [Springer] actors who have got the experience and the talent to completely hold their own against that. Because these are complex and challenging roles, so if we hadn’t found actors of this brilliance I think we would have been in real trouble.”

“What we’ve focused on in rehearsal is making sure that we really look for what these characters want, what they are fighting against and where their humanity lies,” continues Harvey. “We’ve been quite careful in rehearsals to talk quite openly about the issues, the questions that the play raises and stories that it tells, and to talk about the darkness in it, and what can lead people to that place”. While the play’s subject is quite a serious and heavy one, Hammond feels it’s an important one to be explored in this way through theatre. “One of the things I’m proud of is that the play seems accurate – while it’s not an attempt to depict the state of the nation in terms of children’s homes, I really feel like it has an accuracy about what can be part of the experience of young people in care homes and those who have emotional difficulties”.

This accuracy is something that Hammond hopes will give the audience some perspective. “Sometimes it’s really difficult for us, and I’m including myself in that, to just stop and understand that for many young people life is really, really tough,” he explains, “and I think that as a society we need to be more understanding of that, and more compassionate.  And if the play encourages or enables people to think about that experience and to be compassionate then I would love that”. However, while Hammond feels “I would like the audience to be moved, and I guess to be shocked into compassion”, Harvey doesn’t think that they’ve been working on the play with that end in mind. “I suppose we haven’t been thinking ‘how do we move the audience?’, because I guess that’s the thing about a really good play. If we can find a really truthful way of telling it, and being true to the story it tells and the characters that Joe has written, then the rest will take care of itself”.

Where the Mangrove Grows plays at Theatre503 until 1 December 2012. For tickets and more information, visit the Theatre503 website. Want to win tickets to Where the Mangrove Grows? Enter our competition.

Image credit: Mark Springer as Charles and Charlie Jones as Shaun by Bill Muir.