Victim and perpetrator: the writing of All the Little Lights

Thursday 19th January 2017

All the Little Lights, which returns to Nottingham Playhouse next month ahead of a UK tour, explores the dangers of child sexual exploitation and what can happen when society looks the other way. Poignant, moving and darkly funny, this award-winning play tells the searing story of three girls slipping through the cracks in society, desperately searching for friendship, family and themselves.

In the first of a series of blog posts about the show, Jane Upton tells us what inspired her to write this important play and the research needed to tell the story…

In 2014, I read a news story about a girl who was grooming other girls to be part of a sex ring run by a gang of older men. It vilified the young woman. She had a nickname and there were sordid details and grainy pictures of her. She was over 18 now, but she herself had been groomed as a young teenager and had lived her life with these men as her “family”. Now she was helping them get other girls to be passed around and abused. The line between victim and perpetrator had been blurred and she was stuck. I wanted to write about a young woman in that situation.

I met up with Derby-based charity Safe and Sound who talked to me about the work they do with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation. They told me they couldn’t help a young woman like the one in the story as she’s over 18, and with no support network around her, she would very likely go on to a life of prostitution. They also told me they had just lost funding for a strand of work they did with parents of victims; helping them to create a safe and calm place for their children to return to when they’re experiencing abuse – avoiding conflict, leaving a sandwich in the fridge for them, letting them know they can talk when they’re ready. This really stuck with me and I wanted to ensure at least one of our characters had a family at home.

As part of my research, I looked at news articles about child victims of all different crimes. It soon became clear that the children who make the news are often the ones who represent our perfect ideal of childhood. Children that won’t garner much sympathy don’t attract as many column inches. As Joanne says in the play: “Aint no one looking for people like me.” A young woman like Joanne could so easily slip through the cracks in our society.

It took me a long time to write the play; because I’m learning and because I became more aware of the responsibility I had the further in I went. Of course I questioned whether I was the right person to tell this story. In the end I just wrote what I felt was truthful and theatre company Fifth Word helped me develop it with workshops and rehearsed readings. There have been many, many drafts but the company never gave up on the idea even when I thought I might. I wanted to write a play about this girl and how she is trapped. I chose not to give the men a voice at all. I wanted it to be all about her and her friends and how they survive, or don’t. None of these decisions came as easily as it sounds here. But now the play is written and about to tour, opening here in my home city where lots of the people who inspire me and my characters still live. I hope the story inspires something good, somehow.

Jane Upton was joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright for All The Little Lights. It is also nominated for Best Play at the 2016 Writers’ Guild Awards. See it here from Tue 7 – Sat 11 Feb.

Warning: This trailer contains sexual references and strong language which some viewers may find offensive.

Images: Esther-Grace Button, Tessie Orange-Turner and Sarah Hoare in All the Little Lights – photography by Robert Day.