by Deborah Wain
When Chris Thompson’s stage play Carthage – a response to his 12 years as a social worker – opened in London, its reception created a rush for tickets and prompted extra dates to be added to its run.
The story about a boy’s life and death in care was acclaimed for providing an uncommon and authentic insight into the system and all of its moral complexities.
Social work, says Thompson, had allowed him access – something he describes as being “a privilege” – to people at their very best and worse, with the two often happening at the same time. This was reflected in the newcomer’s explosive and thought-provoking piece of dramatic art.
Working full time
Remarkably Carthage, produced in 2014, was Thompson’s first attempt at writing, penned while working full-time as a social worker. Following the success of a second play, he left his job to commit himself to scripts.
Throughout his social work career, Thompson was based in Croydon. Being able to write anywhere has given him enviable flexibility. At the moment he is splitting his time between London and New York, where producers are casting for the United States premiere of Carthage, with spells in Dubai, where members of his family live.
Thompson, who grew up in Kent, had an interest in theatre at school, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in film studies and French. Post-university, he took on a range of jobs, including work as a London bus tour guide. However, it was a period spent volunteering in France that gave him a taste of a role helping others.
Thompson was later recruited by Croydon social services and gained a master’s degree in social work while on the job. He was part of the borough’s leaving care team before being responsible for protection assessments involving children with disabilities. Latterly he took up an NHS post in young people’s sexual health, which included working with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse.
‘Killed his creativity’
Although happy in his job, Thompson began writing Carthage in 2012 as an outlet for uncomfortable feelings that social work had killed his creativity.
He explains: “However much I loved social work and hoped that I had some good outcomes, you can only be creative to a certain degree. I felt social work had numbed me. I’d go to the theatre and find myself rolling my eyes at its self-indulgence and that didn’t reflect my attitude to culture at all.
Social work is great but it’s not about you. I wanted to find that creative side of myself again.
“I wrote a play because that was something I could do by myself, unlike acting or directing.”
Carthage tells the story of Tommy Anderson, who dies in a young offenders’ institute while being restrained following a lifetime in care. His neglectful mother blames the prison guard, but he wants the family’s jaded social worker to admit to the role she played.
The play confronts the “big questions around responsibility, blame and guilt” that Thompson says plagued him during a decade of managing risk. It asks whether systems designed to protect children in care do more harm than good.
Carthage earned Thompson a Channel 4 Playwright’s scheme bursary and the play’s premiere at the Finborough Theatre was lauded by reviewers. Time Out said it was “Both demotic and incisive, mature, lean and psychologically complex”. Thompson was later nominated for Best New Play and Most Promising New Playwright at the Off West End Awards.
Thompson’s second play Albion was staged at the Bush Theatre. Set on karaoke night in an East End pub it delves into the world of the new far right through elements of political and musical theatre. Like Carthage, Albion features a social worker, this time one sacked in the wake of a child sexual exploitation case. Before the play finished Thompson had quit his NHS job.
Away from social care
Thompson continues to be busy. There is the production of Carthage in New York as well as a possible film version of the play further down the line. Thompson is under commission at the Bush, Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre. As seeing himself as an artist has been a long process, he describes his new theatre works as “trying to explore the world artistically”, away from a social care setting.
However Thompson has returned explicitly to social services for his first television project. His series TOIL – a play on the term ‘time off in lieu’ – is awaiting go-ahead from a broadcaster. He aligns the tone of it with Carthage – filled with “humour, truth and honesty”.
Not only does social work inform Thompson’s writing, his experience in the profession has, he reflects, given him the perspective and resilience required in a field in which there is so much professional uncertainty.
He says: “I’m in this for the long run and there are knocks you have to take. The level of rejection and bruising is very tough but after 12 years in social work; being threatened, destroyed in court, had a dog set on me, I can withstand a lot. Nobody has died.”
Although Thompson laughs that his life “isn’t as glamourous as it sounds”, how does writing for a living compare to his time in social work?
“If I’ve got a play in rehearsal or production, it’s all-consuming and the run itself is exciting and thrilling. However the other side of it is the discipline of sitting in a room writing, and I often find myself lonely during the day. It’s a real change from the hustle and bustle of social work.”
And would he ever return to his former career? “My ambition is to be fulfilled and simply to have a nice day. I never feel like I’ve closed the door.”