Young Ipswich actors pull back the curtain on bullying and knife crime

It used to be sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you, but in the age of social media they can – with dire consequences. Entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to youngsters trying to change that through a dramatic new play.

THE blood shed may be fake; but the tears shed are very real says 15-year-old Amy Collyer, who plays Laura in The Fear That Feeds.

“There’s a scene where we cry every time we do it. I go home to my mum and tell her I’ve stabbed Georgie and her mum finds her on the floor. It makes you think ‘oh my God this happens to real people’ and that just builds and you’re in floods.”

Year 10 and 11 drama GCSE students at Ipswich Academy have been working on the play for the past eight months. It’s based on an idea by police officers from the South East Safer Neighbourhood team in Gainsborough and written by the academy’s head of drama, Natasha Higdon.

Told through the eyes of former best friends Laura and Georgina, it’s a story of a friendship consumed by bullying; looking at how relationships and personalities change to their new expectations of popularity and how manipulation and power can influence young teenagers to hurt one another.

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Seen from both sides of the story, it poses the question how bullying and knife crime starts and what can or should have been done to stop it.

“I was bullied, so playing the bully is a different role for me,” says Gemma Reeve, 16, who plays Georgina.

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“It’s been quite difficult considering my best friend is playing the victim, it makes it harder to actually be mean to her. If anyone was doing that to her, I would be the one that would be trying to sort it out.

“I think about it, my eyes start to water and that helps me be nasty to Amy. It’s quite hard thinking over those previous years but I’ve got through it okay.”

Both agree it’s an important subject to get out there.

“We don’t want people just to think ‘okay, I watched a bullying play today’. We want them to go away and think ‘how can I stop this because it’s not right. I’m ginger, everyone picks on the ginger kid,” laughs Amy. “Bullying’s not really something that’s happened to me to this extent obviously; but we see it happen.”

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other social media a bully’s reach now extends further than ever before.

“It’s extending now to not just your social life but your home life too and it’ll consume you. You see it happen to Laura; she is completely consumed and does something she would never think of doing.

“And Georgina is taken over by this new girl at the school who’s manipulating her to change...,” says Gemma.

“And the parents notice, but they don’t notice in time usually,” adds Laura.

Aside from being mean to and then being stabbed by your best friend, both are enjoying the experience. Especially as they’re in Year 11 so is the last show they’ll perform at the academy.

“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had at this school. We’ve never taken something this big out into the community before. I always did comedy, never serious so it’s nice. Our biggest audience was 200 for Alice in Wonderland,” says Amy.

“It’s quite scary though, because people we don’t even know will be showing up to the New Wolsey just because they’ve seen the advert in town or on our website.”

“It’s something that really puts the pressure on you,” adds Gemma. “You want to make this good, want people to think about it and want it to make an impact. So it’s something that we’re really trying hard on.”

Work on the play may have started nearly a year ago as an attempt to engage with youngsters, but it’s transfer to the stage is quite timely.

Knife crime is on the up nationally. At the time of writing a man was fighting for his life after a stabbing in Ipswich town centre.

“The worry is young people are turning to violence as an avenue to express their emotions and in worse case scenarios using knives as a form of defence or an intended weapon,” says Pcso John Hood of South East Safer Neighbourhood team and the safer schools officer at the academy.

“The production highlights the severity of carrying a knife and the impact split-second decisions can have on a person’s life and those of their families.”

John has been heavily involved in rehearsals and direction with writer-director Natasha and, like her, plays one of the three adult roles in the play.

Comprising 16 acts split into two acts, the 13-strong cast use narrative, dance and poetry to tell the story.

It also includes an original piece of music devised by the South East Safer Neighbourhood Team and recorded and performed by Ipswich Academy students involved in Club For Teens at the Gainsborough Library.

“It used to be sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you – well names do hurt now. Used the proper way [Twitter, Facebook are] fantastic tools. Used the wrong way it can destroy people,” says John.

“The thing is you want to do it right. If you want to make something powerful for an audience it’s about getting those really kind of uncomfortable scenes right,” adds Natasha.

Bullying is covered in school and she researched knife crime, listening to case studies of women who lost their children in knife crime-related incidents.

Given the topic, the children have found the play really challenging.

“One rehearsal we had, everyone was in tears because it was so emotional. I didn’t expect that reaction and it just suddenly turned up a different notch. I think because they’re young and they’re playing it [real], it just gives it that more realistic edge.” says Natasha.

The Fear That Feeds plays at Ipswich Academy, March 28-29; then the New Wolsey Studio on March 31.

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