Patrick Sandford’s Groomed addresses an extraordinarily difficult subject – and the fact that it is always watchable, even at its most intense, is a real achievement. Sandford tackles the story of his own abuse by a male teacher intelligently, emotionally and unflinchingly. It helps that he is a very accomplished actor, with a rich voice reminiscent of David Attenborough, and this measured detachment enables an almost forensic unfolding of the arc of his abuse and its impact on his life. At the same time though, you never lose contact with the man on the stage: a warm, feeling, very human being.
Occasionally, Sandford even swaps roles to voice the thoughts of his abuser – and here, his control is absolute. But the calm objective tone is rightly jettisoned at key moments, letting raw disbelief and anger show through. At one point, he reveals, another teacher walked in on him and his abuser, but did nothing. We see him white with anger and sheer distressed amazement that someone could pretend not to see a boy bent over under a desk, where an adult teacher was in the act of raping him.
Sandford is accompanied by a musician playing the saxophone, an instrument with a powerful range of raw sound and emotion. It’s a successful device, allowing expression of inchoate feeling that lies beyond words, a symbol of the fact that this kind of abuse leaves scars below conscious reach. At one point, when the saxophonist plays a short riff, Sandford explains that his director inserted the music to give him some respite – a chance to calm himself on the stage. And that was the moment when it truly sank in that he was describing what had actually happened to him; that he may be a consummate actor, but his story was real.
Sandford does not flinch either from the double-edged feelings that come from the grooming and the rewarding – being told you are the best in the class, so that you are doubly bound by praise and by coercion. He spells out that the dangerous myth of “stranger danger” is just that, a myth; his abuser was a man of charm and social skill, insinuating himself into Sandford's mother’s good graces. He lays out for us the polite banality and self-obsessive nature which enables such predators to manipulate their victims.
You should go to see this play, both to witness something important, and to come away with – if not a happy ending – a sense that Sandford is reclaiming his life by acknowledging the great secrets that he had had to harbour. A parallel motif of the famous Japanese soldier, who carried on guarding a remote island for twenty-eight years after the Second World War ended, serves well as a correlate of the war he is forced to continually experience in his own deepest self.
I felt honoured that Sandford shared his story, and the huge impact it had had over his whole life. At the end of the show he asked how many in the audience were counsellors or social workers – and there were a lot. It would be great, too, to see it performed in schools, or any institutions where there are people at risk or who might be carrying similar secrets with them. In the meantime, this clearly doesn’t make for a hilarious night out, but it’s a true must-see show. Sandford’s storytelling is impeccable, his contact with audience strong and nourishing – you can feel him speaking as if just to you.