A generation of boys lost without their fathers

Philip Osment tells Bridget Galton how a lack of role models is taking its toll on a generation

HAMPSTEAD writer Philip Osment has worked with a group of unemployed youngsters to devise a play about young fathers in prison.

The initial inspiration sprang from his sessions with 18 to 21-year-old dads in Rochester Prison.

He brought back his thoughts and impressions of the inmates to a group of disenfranchised young people on a drama course.

They then came up with a series of characters and situations which Osment turned into a play.

Inside runs at the Roundhouse Studio this month and centres around seven young fathers who sign up for an education programme to relieve the boredom of life on a prison wing. They try to use the workshops to settle scores and rise up the pecking order but are confronted with more than they’d bargained for – as they face up to their relationships with their children and fathers.

Osment, who lives in Fleet Road, says it examines “what it is to be a young man today” as well as the self-deceptions, vulnerabilities, failed hopes and violence of young prisoners.

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“It’s very much based on my experiences in Rochester and the kind of behaviour I saw in that group, which was mainly made up of young fathers.

“The project was called Child’s Play because it was about giving them the skills to play with their own children. Asking them to act out how they might play with their kids encouraged them to think for the first time about the kind of father they wanted to be.

“But we found immediately it was difficult for them to join in the drama games because they hadn’t been given that opportunity to play as kids.

“It can be really hard for young adults to be given the space to play games. They had huge fears around just allowing themselves to be silly.”

One prisoner said the only things his father had done with him were boxing and hare coursing. The game he played involved going in a ring with another lad and putting bets on as to who would win the match.

“Another guy, who had four kids quite young, continually wanted to please and sing, which was more revealing than if he’d talked about the abuse he’d suffered.”

Osment was warned by the workshop leader to focus on skills rather than trawling through the inmates’ psychological baggage.

“You have to be very careful about what you bring up because then they go back to their cells and think about it all night. You say, ‘Have a good weekend’, not realising that this is the very worst time of the week for them because they will be locked in their cells the whole time. If you go into psychodrama you might bring up stuff they then can’t deal with.”

When Osment returned to his drama group, their improvisations borrowed much of the behaviour he had witnessed in the prison.

“The group dynamic, the jockeying for power, the power relations and the bullying that go on are very corrosive.”

But the play also delves further into social and psychological issues.

“I had previously worked on a play about knife crime and many of the same things came up with this play – about boys’ relationships with their fathers and peers. A lot of young men are not having the relationships with their fathers that they need. If they don’t get the role models they need at home, then their peers become their role models. I came across people who had made choices in the face of huge pressure from their peers.”

Osment observed in both groups a pernicious materialism that pushes young men into criminal activity.

“This whole need to be seen to have money and possessions, an unrealistic, inflated expectation of the lifestyle they want and a loss of any sense of values that come from the community is a huge problem. Often their swaggering behaviour is a cover for a lack of sense of their own worth.”

A happy by-product of the project is that a large percentage of the drama group who have performed Inside at Soho Theatre and now the Roundhouse were not previously in any training, education or employment, but have been inspired to go on to college.

Osment, whose next project involves working in Swiss Cottage with youngsters at risk of mental health problems, is a firm believer in the transformative power of the arts.

“It’s a real worry in the face of the cuts but it’s clear that work can start a process about gaining a sense of self-esteem. Some of the young people who are in the play are from the same backgrounds as the lads in Rochester. Theatre is turning people’s lives around literally. I don’t know whether without that course, they would be going to college.”

Inside by Philip Osment is at Roundhouse Studio Theatre in Chalk Farm from November 12 to 27. For tickets, call the box office on 0844 482 8008 or visit www.roundhouse.org.uk.