Tokens of Affection, written by award winning playwright Maureen Lawrence, has its London premiere at Waterloo East Theatre right now. Lawrence’s play is based on her experience of working in a unit for violent adolescent girls in Bradford in the 1980s and the scenes are borne from situations she encountered daily. The Tokens in the title are the rewards for good behaviour given to the girls for their bus fare home. Lawrence says that she also sees the girls themselves as tokens, “figures of the failures in our society and in our educational system”.
Annette (Jennifer Wiltsie) is the head of the unit, supported by her deputy, long suffering Nancy (Anna Kirke). Their new colleague Gillian (Lindsey Scott) arrives to replace their absent (hospitalised) colleague and experiences a baptism of fire. The three women have different attitudes and ideas about how to treat the young women in their care. A mix of bribery with food and cigarettes, faith and kindness, keeping the girls off the street by locking the door.
Debbie (Grace Clarke) is loud and bullying, seeking attention and unable to settle to any activity. Kelly (Eliza Glock) has returned from a visit to court, her friendship with Debbie is unstable, lurching from best friends to mortal enemies in a heartbeat. Liane (Elise Carman) is convinced everyone hates her and is bullied mercilessly by Debbie as the weakest member of the group. New arrival Andrea (Didi Cederstrom) refuses to speak to anyone, not responding to tough love or a kindly listening ear.
This skillfully crafted piece challenges our views and affections at every turn, all the women on stage, toy with our emotions and we are in turn sympathetic to their position and frustrated by their behaviours. The stand out performance was from Didi Cederstrom as Andrea, silent through the chaos until the final chilling climax.
This play is just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. In the 2016-17 academic year, 45 schools in England excluded at least one in five pupils. Tokens of Affection opens the door and forces the audience to take a look at these girls and the women who work with them. Showing the glimmers of hope and moments of humour in what seems a despairing situation with no escape for these young women.
Reviewed by Rhiannon Evans
FOLLOW WEST END WILMA