There’s a popular theory that if you create a safe environment for at risk youth they will instantly thrive. It’s not quite true. Youth workers who know the score will tell you the minute a troubled young person enters a safe environment the first thing they often do is kick off. Not to see what they can get away with, but to test how safe they really are. Because often what should have been their safest environment, home, proved to be the most dangerous. As might family. So they’ve learned not to trust safe places or people who promise them safety. Resorting to anti-social behaviour to the dismay of many well intentioned youth workers. Shocked into bitterness seeing their best laid intentions being trampled on for no apparent reason. This discrepancy between spurious theories and the realities of youth work informs much of Shaun Dunne’s troubled "Restoration." Wherein a farcical Restorative Practice session damages far more than it heals. Yet if Dunne’s play leaves something to be desired, in a production that isn’t visually all that special, despite some fine lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels, performances prove to be another thing entirely. Opening up the wild heart at the centre of Dunne’s problem polemic, making it well worth the price off admission.
In Dunne’s imagined Youth Centre, the tension between the needs of staff and the young people they serve clash during a Restorative Practice session. Except they really don’t if you look too closely. It all just a handy device to frame youth worker Leanne. A successful veteran of the Dangerous Minds club who’s drawn from the well far too often. Someone so busy telling the world how to behave she’s forgotten how to listen, raining down insightful and often misinformed opinions before you’ve had a chance to finish voicing your own. It’s a subtle kind of bullying, but Leanne’s experienced at being the biggest and best intentioned bully in the room. Bullying her colleague Dean into a Restorative Practice session he doesn’t really want while secretly conspiring with his attacker, Paul, behind his back. Manipulating intern Michelle into a non paying job at the Centre, likely at the expense of Dean losing his. Only Tony, Paul’s older brother with his own agenda with whom Leanne shares some vague history, pushes back, being something of a bully himself. Yet that’s the thing with bullies, even well intentioned ones. Their good intentions usually line a road to hell. And often they can’t see it coming.
Employing a more conventional dramatic structure when compared to much of his work, Dunne's "Restoration" tries blending medium and message into an holistic whole. Making for an uncomfortable marriage wherein drama appears to wear the gown while the message catches the bouquet. Yet, in reality, it's drama who's really the message's hand maiden. Depicting youth work in a fashion that can look fifty shade wrong even when it gets it right. If "Restoration" captures the frustration and burnout, it takes a lot of poetic licence without a real policy or procedure in sight. It’s Restorative Practice facilitation looking so far off the mark it borders on the laughable. But if it’s fifty shades wrong, Dunne is also several shades right, his crafting of tension being impressively done, keeping it all engaging. As is his portrayal of the dangers inherent in youth work, especially of losing sight of the wood for the trees, and a clear sight of yourself, along with the frustrations of being under resourced.
Throughout, characters are determined by politicised positions, offering arguments as exposition and revealing very little else. Their sometimes questionable arguments, coated heavily in social care speak, delivered with the ferocity of a high speed tennis match, with each character rallying to score points by making points. Something director Darren Thornton handles marvellously, distilling every ounce of humanity from the situations even while arguments determine the pace. Ensuring Shauna Higgins’ aspirational Nicole shines. As does Callan Cummin’s less well developed Paul, a youth for whom there’s very little at stake should he stay or have to go. Barry O’Connor as the menacing yet well intentioned Tony turns in a terrific performance. As does John Cronin as Dean, the youth worker at the centre of Leanne’s questionable Restorative Practice. But it’s Kate Stanley Brennan who lights up the stage, revealing a dangerous mind inherently troubled, using her position to enforce her own agenda with the relentless insistence of a fanatic.
Any youth worker really worth their salt knows there’s only one question you need to ask yourself. If your own child was in difficulty would you want them attending your centre or service? If the answer is no, then you need to take a long hard look and ask why. When it comes to its problematic portrayal of youth work, "Restoration" needs to take a longer, harder look at itself. Even allowing for poetic licence, it’s half-informed polemic often misses the mark even as it captures something of the spirit. Yet as a portrayal of a youth worker way past the point of burnout, blinded by her passion and good intentions, "Restoration" knocks it out of the park. Due, in no small measure, to an incandescent Kate Stanley Brennan, brilliantly supported by a first rate cast.
"Restoration" by Shaun Dunne, runs at the Project Arts Centre until February 1.
For more information visit Project Arts Centre.