I was intrigued that a provincial small amateur theatre had taken on a recent national prizewinning play on such a difficult subject. I was very proud of Norwich’s Sewell Barn for doing so, and for offering the amateur premiere after a 4 week run at London’s well regarded new writing theatre, the Finborough (close to Earl’s Court), only a year later.
On arriving at the difficult to access venue, 3 miles from the train station and with no pavements around the campus on which the barn is sited, I found out why SBT were especially interested. The writer, Luke Owen, has long been connected with them and lives in the city. But they have chosen challenging, award winning and fairly new plays before.
As a playwright who’d also entered the Papatango competition, I was interested to know what had won it. And for the first scene, I felt sadly disappointed. A man enters an office, makes tea, puts on music and wiggles his bum, to a few audience laughs (not shared by me). A second man, Simon, appears and after a dull and clunky exchange, soon goes into meltdown. It felt over egged and as if they were not quite comfortable on the stage. The first man (Nidge) is ridiculously distracting and almost afraid of his colleague’s grief.
But that was the only duff scene – I think the play would be stronger if it began with scene 2: a young, well turned out keen man in a interview, reeling off his computing prowess. As the ordinary sounding interview progresses, we begin to gather the nature of the job – this isn’t your average IT role. The nature of the work isn’t spelt out. As Tom tries to describe what he sees in the file he’s been handed, with the sense of threshold he is crossing, the play becomes excellent. I felt nervous with Tom about what he’d see and have to tell us – but the play manages to be powerful and uncomfortable without showing or saying anything explicit. I do think following Tom into the video room would have added to the story: not to learn what he saw but to see his reaction, his will to sit through it and to accept the job.
And then there’s a cut to the other story – Tom is dating. And immediately, the obvious “So what do you do?” seems set to squelch any romance with “Tinkerbelle…”- which is where the audience also learns that Tom spends his day looking at images of children being abused, to be passed to the police for action.
We see less of Nidge’s outside life, except the recurring cinematic wordless episodes where he crouches over his model plane to piano music – brave for theatre, but welcome and well used. Nitch has learned to cut out the emotional core of his work and lets daytime TV and X-boxes and absorb the horrors of the video and pictures he has to assess.
The characters’ awkwardness and naturalness was excellent, especially in the dating scenes, due to both acting and script. Emily’s rising end of sentences and trying too hard when not fully socially comfortable – as teens and twenties often do – are perfectly captured theatrically. The office manager, Mark, could easily feel bland, but this is avoided as he is overly casual with but disconnected from his staff. Only Simon at the start was a problem, and apart from one later mention of his name (we could guess at what that meant) he is never needed or part of the story again.
There was a scene that I felt needed something before it. Tom is head in hands, talking to Mark, but we see no catalyst; it doesn’t follow from the last scene. And it didn’t work for me as a “come in late” and disorientate the audience kind of scene.
The meltdown scene was an uneven increase in the volume and drama; and the final arc, whilst neatly drawn, was to not where I’d hoped. Despite the first scene with Simon, colleagues Nidge and Tom are more articulate and open about feelings than Tom is with Emily. The latter relationship seems emotionally immature, based on only flirting and attraction, with sex being obligatory after their first ‘official’ date. Tom shuts Emily out when she triggers a reminder of his work with her childlike pyjamas and stuffed animals around the bedroom. I didn’t really invest in their relationship, because I could see little real affection or connection or openness.
There are many challenges to the nature of Tom and Nidge’s job: the intensity and boringness of it (ironic for an IT whizz), along with pressure of time and volume of work. It queries that images of adults being harmed are coolly written off as ‘not our remit’. It asks whether becoming inured to horror and tragedy is ever good – and that is a conundrum for all of us. It made me question if any job – including the counsellors with whom it is obligatory to speak – ought to continually be around such disturbing material. The play asks if talking about the videos – and thus reliving them – helps. It led me to wonder what would alleviate, and also how to deal with the perpetrators, and questions of forgiveness and healing for those who do the ultimate crimes.
The arc of the story is ultimately a sad one. Apart from the scenes I mention, it is a well crafted one, but it’s hopeless and doesn’t go far enough in questioning the job description or letting anyone get to a better place.
I would still encourage people to see it for themselves and for a welcome change to the usual theatre we get in this region.
New Writing needs more platforms!
Unscorched is showing til Dec 6th 2014 at Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 3BB, and directed by Michelle Montague.
http://www.sewellbarn.org or 01603 628319 (Prelude Records on St Giles St)