Lancashire Police warning about child grooming in theatre show
Lancashire Police is using the power of theatre to highlight the dangers of child grooming.
Joining forces with a team of thespians, officers have funded a new project which reveals the heartache endured by victims of sexual exploitation.
The characters and scenarios might be fictional but for many children across the county the abuse is a reality.
Leading the fight is PC Martin Midgley, who said: "Grooming and sexual exploitation are on the rise and if we try to do something on our own as a police service it becomes difficult.
"Drama pieces are different to what we'd normally do, so we're hoping this will be more effective in reaching young people."
The force has teamed up with Burnley Youth Theatre to commission a one-woman show aimed at Year 9 pupils, The Only One in the World.
Writer and director Karen Metcalfe has also created a workshop to be used by 20 schools across Lancashire to spark a conversation about the show.
The tale follows 15 year-old Liv, whose life is turned upside down when her parents' marriage breaks down.
Lonely and vulnerable, she is preyed upon by an older man, 22 year-old Jez, who manipulates, grooms and abuses her.
To Liv, he is the prince who turns up just in time to rescue her from her loneliness.
But the heart-breaking reality: Jez is nothing more than a predator taking advantage of her fragility.
Teachers in the audience who are also parents will no doubt want to shake her by the shoulders and confiscate her phone when she says: "Since my mum left, everyday I've woken up with this feeling that something's missing.
"But when I woke up and read that message from Jez, it was like it was back."
The show might be written for teenagers, but Karen doesn't hold back in capturing the reality of child sexual abuse.
No-one knows that better than actress Sophie Milne. In fact, her latest role was almost too much to bear.
Still, the 20 year-old knew it was vital to push aside her feelings of shock and disgust at the story’s villains and deliver its powerful messages.
"The tale is difficult to perform as I felt awful for Liv," she said.
"But I knew I couldn’t protect myself from hearing about the things which happened to her, as young people need to learn about these issues," she said.
"The production is shown just from her point of view, so you can see how she's being manipulated by Jez.
"Sadly her vulnerability is a reality today."
The aim, she said, is to educate young people aged 13 to 14 about potential dangers in relationships which can develop into grooming and exploitation.
She hopes it will help them to recognise signs of their own vulnerability, empower them to say no to anything which makes them feel uncomfortable and encourage them to confide in an adult they know and trust.
"The project has taught me everyone goes on a journey and it's about understanding who you are, not giving things up so easily, trusting in yourself and being strong as a person," she added.
"It's important to look out for your friends, and make sure they're safe.
"If something is happening to you or your friends which doesn't feel right you need to trust your instincts and speak out.
"Even if it in the end it isn't anything serious, you've still done your bit to help your friends access support if they need it - that's really important."
For Karen, theatre is a powerful tool for hammering this message home.
"It's scary how much the world has changed in five years," she said.
"We'll perform the show in intimate settings so the audience won't be able to hide in a darkened auditorium.
"They'll be there right in the action - that will have a huge impact."
What lands the greatest emotional punch, despite the dark topic, is the play's normality - for Liv is a typical 15 year-old with familial troubles experienced by teenagers up and down the country.
"In many stories, you see stereotypes of girls and men who are likely to be groomed or become perpetrators," Karen said.
"But we're telling a slightly different story so young people won't say, "That wouldn't happen to me because it doesn't fit who I am'.
"Instead, the play makes an everyday girl a victim."
For the haunting truth, as Sophie added, is that: "It can happen to anyone who is vulnerable."
That brings us to the scene when Liv reveals to her parents the multiple rapes she's endured - a moment which officers hope will never play out in the real world again.
It's a matter of preventing any parents from ever again hearing Liv's words - "I wanted him to love me; I wanted him to keep me safe; I trusted him" - about the "saviour" who promised their child the world, but instead brought them nothing but pain.
Anyone with concerns about child sexual exploitation can contact police on 101 or the Operation Engage team directly on 01254 353 525.