In 2014 Fifth Word commissioned Jane Upton to write a new play. This was Fifth Word’s second collaboration with Jane after premiering her critically acclaimed debut Bones. It was at a time after the high profile child sexual exploitation scandals in Rochdale and Rotherham hit the press. And Jane felt compelled to tell a story about it. When she first came to us with the idea we were particularly interested in the case of a young girl who was dubbed ‘The Honey Monster’ in the media. She was responsible for coercing other young girls into being exploited for sex. She started out as a victim but was then perceived and portrayed as a perpetrator.
One of the things we have found extremely poignant is the shifting level of sympathy that society shows young girls who have found themselves the victim of child sexual exploitation. This can often be dependent on how they look or their social background, with many girls depressingly not being seen as the ‘ideal victim’, and their stories then sidelined or dismissed.
The press also often talk about the ‘men’ involved in these cases but Jane wanted a different take for All the Little Lights; she wanted to show the girls’ stories as seen through their own eyes.
Throughout the process we have been pleased to work with the charity Safe & Sound in Derby who provided research, advice and support. Established in 2002, they have built a strong reputation as a key provider in the bid to end sexual violence, child sexual exploitation and abuse, and are trusted by victims of sexual exploitation, their families, carers and professional agencies alike.
After many many drafts, workshops and a rehearsed reading, All the Little Lights had its world premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in 2015. It has since bagged Jane the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright, and the production has received critical acclaim reviews from leading theatre publications.
Now, three years on from its inception, I'm thrilled to be directing All the Little Lights for its London premiere at the Arcola Theatre this October. This will be the play’s third outing following the preview at Nottingham Playhouse and a UK spring tour in 2017.
And the play still couldn’t be more relevant. Almost every day there seem to be equally shocking revelations coming to light about how badly these young people were failed, and the numbers of girls and boys who have been identified as victims of Child Sexual Exploitation continues to soar.
There is an increased understanding of how sexual violence, exploitation and abuse takes place and the response to victims is improving. The Government has invested in a National Child Sexual Exploitation Response Unit and a Centre of Expertise for Child Sexual Abuse. Although it feels as though there is much more awareness about CSE today there is still more work that needs to be done.
Alongside these initiatives, Safe and Sound would like to see more funding for those working directly with children and young people affected by sexual exploitation, coupled with an ongoing drive to boost the knowledge and understanding of this issue amongst both frontline professionals and the general public.
The play is an exploration into the world of child sexual exploitation told through the eyes of these young girls; it delves into the human stories behind the headlines. This isn’t just a story about sexual abuse. It’s about three young girls struggling to find their place in the world; it’s about securing friendships and finding an alternative family.
I want the audience to think and to remember just how easy it is for young girls to slip through the net, to go under the radar and become invisible, and that this can happen to young people of all races and backgrounds. What happened across the towns and cities in the UK is a national disgrace and should never be allowed to happen again. I think we all have a responsibility to recognise the signs that a young person is at risk of being abused, in order to help prevent them from ever becoming a victim.
Laura Ford is Director of ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS by Jane Upton, and co-Artistic Director of Fifth Word Theatre