Rochdale’s child sex grooming scandal brought to stage at Hampstead Theatre

Phil Davies tells Bridget Galton why his debut play deals with sexual grooming in his home town.

As a testbed for experimental plays by emerging writers, Hampstead Theatre’s downstairs studio can respond to pressing social issues with highly topical work.

Phil Davies’ debut Firebird, which deals with the sexual grooming of teens in his home town of Rochdale, firmly falls into that category.

Helmed by artistic director Edward Hall, the three hander explores the tangled relationships between mouthy, vulnerable teen Tia, her friend Katie and older AJ who shows her kindness, while exploiting her naivety.

Davies says the 2012 case that saw young victims passed around a ring of men for sex made him think of his own schooldays.

“When I was 14 it was totally normal for girls in my class to leave school and get into a 4X4. I remember thinking how annoying that girls wouldn’t go out with boys their own age, but looking back through the prism of these court cases I now have horrible pangs that girls I knew would have been going through things like that. But no-one thought of it, or it was tucked so far back into people’s consciousness they weren’t willing to confront it.”

Researching similar cases elsewhere, Davies spotted a common victim profile – and police attitude.

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“The way they looked at the girls is one of the most heartbreaking aspects. They put it down to lifestyle choices ‘If they want to go out there and be prostitutes, that’s their choice’. They asked one girl how short her nightie was. As if to say she was asking for it. She was 13. That seems unbelieveable now and wouldn’t have happened to a teenager from a stable home in Hampstead who could look after herself. These girls were from difficult backgrounds and broken homes, they were vulnerable and needed help the most, but police washed their hands of them.”

The cases have firmed up for law enforcers the belief that it’s legally impossible to consent to sex if you are under 16 – and ushered in a new offence of street grooming. While some cases were opportunistic, in others the men calculatedly targeted young girls, sometimes using younger men to earn their trust.

Writing about those perpetrators was more problematic due to the controversy around the predominantly Pakistani men involved in Rochdale.

“It’s a difficult area to explore why a certain perpetrator was convicted. I don’t want to create something a nasty right wing person can get hold of, but I’m equally aware that police didn’t act for fear of being prejudiced.” Davies thinks it’s less about the ethnic background of abusers and victims and more about opportunity.

“One reason is the night-time economy. The kebab shops and taxis that give access to vulnerable girls wandering the streets late at night are run by people of Pakistani heritage; and Muslim girls are not on the streets.

“In the Netherlands there’s been similar cases, it’s been Moroccans and Algerians because they work in those places.” While it would be “disingenuous” not to admit these are all Muslim countries, Davies is careful to say: “I don’t think Islam has anything to do with why men do this. Ultimately their profile is that they are men. It’s a difficult balance but I decided only to include facts selected to create an argument, and tried to be careful.”

And while it’s “a grim subject”, he hates as a theatregoer being faced with unremittingly bleak material. “I don’t like theatre that feels like an assault. Young people can be really funny even in the darkest of places. I hope I show there is light, and a sense of hope.”

Firebird runs until October 24 at Hampstead Theatre.