#Iloveyoumum: the national launch of the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation play, Thursday 9th February

By - Tuesday 21st February, 2017

This powerful production launches the Croydon-based drugs education charity onto a national stage

Photo by the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, used with permission.

On Friday 17th January 2014, Croydon sixth former Daniel Spargo-Mabbs told his parents he was going to a party with friends. It was rather short notice: his mother Fiona wasn’t happy. But he was becoming a responsible young man: okay, she said. Teenagers can be very sensitive; Daniel knew she was worried and he wanted to reassure her. “I love you, mum”, he said. “I promise I won’t die!”.

He wasn’t going to a party, though. He went to an illegal rave. On the way, he took the drug MDMA (ecstasy), accidentally doubling the intended amount. At 5:30am on Saturday, police knocked on his parents’ door. Daniel was critically ill in hospital. On Monday 20th January, he died. An eighteen year old was later sentenced to five years for supplying a Class A drug.

Fiona and Tim Spargo-Mabbs founded the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation a year later. It works with young people, parents, teachers and professionals through lessons and workshops, to raise awareness of the risks of taking drugs. Having piloted its workshops in two schools in 2015, it worked in twenty-six in the following academic year. So far this year, the number is over eighty and it runs a Youth Ambassador programme for young people. It’s also involved in teacher training and runs drug awareness sessions for parents.

This is a Croydon-based organisation that’s really making a difference. Fiona Spargo-Mabbs now sits on the Child Death Overview Panel for NHS England, as a result of her rising profile in the field of drugs education. Then in 2016, through a collaboration with the StopWatch Theatre Company, what’s become known as the #iloveyoumum play came about.

The play will be taught in schools across the UK

The play has just been published by Bloomsbury and is currently touring schools in Croydon and across London, with hopes for a national tour. Its presence on the Methuen Plays for Young People and Schools list means that it will be taught in drama lessons in schools across the UK and beyond. Its national launch event was staged on Thursday 9th February in Southwark Cathedral, followed by a Q&A session with the cast, playwright Mark Wheeller, and Fiona and Tim Spargo-Mabbs.

The idea for the play came from Izzy Forrester, drama teacher at Archbishop Tenison’s school where Daniel was a student. She suggested that Mark Wheeller be asked to work on the story. Drama, she said, would be a powerful means of communication. Izzy’s known to me as the far more formal ‘Miss Forrester’, since my sons attend Tenison’s: the elder remembers Daniel as a senior boy. Its pupils lined the road outside the school when his funeral cortege drove past, on a day which has had a very lasting impact. So I’d heard quite a bit about the #iloveyoumum play. I realised last Thursday night, though, that I’d not understood it at all.

I’d thought that a boy from a sheltered background (in that loving way nice people can over-shield their children) decided to rebel and met with appalling misfortune. I expected to be distressed by this. But that’s not even the half of it.

In the play, as in the lives of his family, Daniel both is and is not there

‘I Love You, Mum – I Promise I Won’t Die’ is a complex piece of theatre, performed by an impressive cast of four. (There’s a long-form version with a cast of twenty, but that’s too cumbersome to tour: this cut-down version runs for fifty minutes and the actors double and triple their roles.) It rises from being just moving to exceptional for two reasons: first, that every word is for real, spoken by Daniel’s family and friends in extended interviews with Mark Wheeller from which he composed the script, and second that Daniel doesn’t feature. He’s represented by a puppeteered hoodie, manoeuvred by the rest of the cast. As in the lives of his family now, and in the work of the foundation, the young man both is and is not there, and that blank, empty hood becomes more and more disturbing as the play proceeds. So does what we learn about his life and death.

Fiona and Tim Spargo-Mabbs at the Q&A.
Photo by the DSM Foundation, used with permission.

Daniel and his parents were working their way through the decade that takes us from being our children’s vigilant protectors and unquestioned decision-makers to their supportive friends. Gradually, they grow more independent. They love us and they resist us. They experiment, they make mistakes, they withhold information. We make the most difficult judgement calls of our lives. After he died, Daniel’s parents were handed his mobile phone by police and scrolled through his texts, watching disaster approach as he moved around the people and into the places where the choice that killed him would be made. It makes you shiver.

It’s about making good come from a very bad thing

Actors Holly Ashman, Christopher Dobson, Lucy Green and Ben O’Shea were terrific. Identifying with the mother, I was hypnotised by Lucy as Fiona, and kept thinking how strange it must be to watch someone play you in front of you, not to mention how nerve-wracking to actually do it. Ben O’Shea was also extremely strong as Daniel’s mate Jack, present at the rave for Daniel’s last conscious hours and watching the loss to his friend’s family. He sees Daniel’s life mirrored in his: what his parents know about him, what they don’t. Trapped in a shock he can’t break out of, he knows he will never be the same again.

The #iloveyoumum play is all about making good come from ‘a very bad thing’, to quote the Spargo-Mabbses. It certainly does so: the play may well save lives. I can testify to the impact of the story on teenagers I know, and it’s hard to find words to express my admiration for those who have made it happen.

But also, a grief like theirs is a journey to somewhere else. Go there, and a part of you never comes back.

“Words will never convey how your death has broken my heart. It’s as if someone invented a new colour for which language didn’t yet exist, and words were just sucked into it and disappeared.” (Tim Spargo-Mabbs).

You can find out more about the work of the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation here, like it on Facebook and follow it on Twitter. It’s one of the charities chosen by the Bishop of Southwark for his 2017 Lent Call, meaning that schools and churches across the diocese will be involved in fund-raising.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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