What is ‘The Secondary Victim’ about?
The drama of therapy and the therapy of drama! Ali is a respected wife and counsellor. But her harmonious life is torn apart when a young male ex-client make allegations of sexual misconduct against her. These allegations go to an Ethical Hearing. The stakes are high – if any of the allegations are upheld, Ali will be shamed and will have her membership withdrawn. There is also the threat of a civil court case for damages. As the play unfolds we see Ali in crisis and we also meet Hugo, the ex-client and now complainant. So we are asked: who is telling the truth? And is it the whole truth?
Why this theme?
I worked as a counsellor and psychotherapist for 20 years. As I was wrapping up my private practice a former client began sending me emails alleging malpractice (not sexual misconduct). Although I was able to send proof to the client that things had not been as they were claiming, they took out a complaint with the BACP – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – with whom I was an Accredited member. In the play I have made up the fictitious BBT: British Board of Therapy. But the process of the complaint in the play is basically what I experienced.
It was while I was speaking to someone who works as a volunteer support for therapists who’ve had complaints made against them that I heard the term ‘the secondary victim’. It’s being applied to counsellors and therapists and it signifies the hugely distressing effect of a complaint.
Did you immediately see the artistic potential in this idea?
I wrote the play originally at the end of 2014. But certainly 2017 has become the year in which sexual misconduct complaints have emerged as a major concern. I wrote the play because the experience was so difficult and distressing: I wanted something positive and creative to come out of it. I hope that therapists who have had complaints made against them may see some element of their own experience reflected. I am not at all saying that complaints shouldn’t be made – this is a point made explicit in the play – but we also live in a blame culture and as Ali says ‘what’s happened to forgiveness? Everyone is so angry?’ As it was I was entirely exonerated of the allegations but my lawyer told me ‘they always uphold something against the counsellor’ – so it was a very difficult period to live through.
What’s been interesting?
This is my 10th produced play. The last three have had very different themes to this one. Yet for 10 years I was a magazine agony uncle, and I’ve written three books with therapeutic themes. So it was about time that I put down some of what I know about therapy in a theatrical entertainment.
So you do think it’s entertaining?
Yes, it would not work if it were some sort of lecture. What the cast has responded to is that, when they were reading the play, it kept twisting and turning so there was never a straightforward or predictable outcome. Remember the title: The Secondary Victim. Yes, Hugo believes himself to be the victim of sexual misconduct. Ali also believes herself to be the victim. And as the play moves towards its climax we wonder exactly how real that statement of being a victim will become.
Tell us about the cast?
A gorgeous group! We (Matthew Gould, the director, and I) conducted a marathon audition process. We had over 1,500 responses to a casting call in Spotlight. The week of the auditions, with first call, then call back where we paired up people we were particularly interested in, was exhilarating and challenging.
Susannah Doyle, who was the lovely Joy who never did any work for Henry in Drop the Dead Donkey and has many other TV and film credits, is Ali. Susannah’s soulful, deeply creative actor and a delight to watch in action. Gary Webster, who co-incidentally knew Susannah in drama school, plays her husband. This is an interesting part for an actor as charming and friendly as Gary: Victor is moody, emotionally demanding and suspicious.
Natasha Bain gave a sensational audition reading for Marilyn, Ali’s supervisor. A supervisor does exactly that: she listens to, advises and supervises a therapist’s client load. The other therapist is Matt Holt. Matt brings both vulnerability and strength to his role as Jonny. He plays most of his scenes opposite Hugo, the troubled complainant. Hugo is played by Michael Hanratty. Both the director and I were blown away by the focused intensity of Michael’s audition and we immediately awarded him the part. And finally Christopher Laishley takes on the role of Teddy. Teddy is a client of Ali’s, a dysfunctional gym coach who is in therapy as a way of avoiding being fired. His story weaves into hers as a counterpoint to Ali’s problems.
Therapy is more common and not just something seen in films anymore. Does ‘the Secondary Victim’ provide a ‘raw’ look at what really goes on behind closed doors?
I’ve written the play for today’s therapy-experienced audience. Nowadays many people have had – or maybe having – therapy. Because I’m a therapy ‘insider’ I’m expecting the audience to encounter elements of their own experience in the way the therapists act. I was pleased, when we did the read through, to hear the cast spontaneously laughing in the right places. When I worked as a therapist I was always a real person, and I would make real responses to what my clients were saying. Sometimes a shared laugh helped a client and so I’m hoping people in the audience who have not yet been in counselling or psychotherapy will see that it’s really just two people in a room, working to help one of them make better sense of their lives. I think still people have the belief that they will be shamed or punished in therapy and I hope my play will reveal that it is not like that. I valued greatly my own process of therapy and overall I believe it’s an immensely rewarding and necessary part of our everyday lives.
The play looks at quite an intimate subject in the studio space of the Park Theatre? Do you think the intimacy is key to the play?
We’re doing the play in the round, which brings the action as close as it can be. I believe the audience will be highly involved with the on-stage action. My last two plays were multi-four-star reviewed. After all the work that’s gone into The Secondary Victim, and, frankly, the pain and distress that inspired it, I’m hoping the audience will enjoy a highly entertaining, thought-provoking and rewarding evening’s theatre. Or afternoon – matinees Thursday and Saturday!
The Secondary Victim is on the Park90 from 14 November – 9 December https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-secondary-victim