The mark of a good play is often the amount of time you spend thinking about it after. The mark of a really good play is the amount of time you spend frozen in your seat after it finishes. I sat a good ten minutes once the lights went up, not quite ready to leave and break the spell of this incredible, bruising piece of theatre.
Unscorched is this year’s winner of the Papatango prize; a new writing competition that awards the winner with a three week run at the Finborough. Luke Owen's play focuses on Tom, a young man who takes a job in data analysis at a small company. The data he happens to be analysing is websites containing images and videos of child abuse. The workplace milieu is incredibly well realised; videos are referred to on a scale of severity from category one to category five, counselling is mandatory, employees are encouraged to take breaks to watch daytime television or play X-box. Experienced colleague Nidge is even on hand to make sure the pressures of the job aren't too much for Tom. But it quickly becomes apparent that all the safeguards in the world aren't enough to protect Tom from the horrors he sees.
This creeping trauma is depicted in a series of subtle scenes. There is a perfectly done vignette early on in which Tom goes speed dating and strikes up an instant connection with the chatty Emily. In the audience, we find ourselves unavoidably counting down to the agonising moment where Emily will ask where Tom works and surely shatter the burgeoning attraction between them.
In a calm, un-hysterical way, Unscorched proceeds to show the terrible toll the job takes on Tom. The trauma of his job inevitably bleeds into his personal life; leaving him unable to conduct a sexual relationship with Emily when even the stuffed toy on Emily’s bed is a horrible reminder of the material Tom has seen.
Justin Audibert's directs this difficult piece with tenderness and intelligence; allowing even the smallest of scenes to build to a gripping emotional climax. Georgia Lowe’s set design is genuinely ingenious; turning the tiny Finborough stage into an immensely versatile space where fridges and phones pop out of walls, computers flip up from boxes and the whole centre stage opens up to reveal a fairy lit bed.
The acting is sublime. Ronan Raftery puts in a very impressive performance as Tom; a man who initially fears the videos he views, then later fears the day they cease to affect him. Eleanor Wyld is also excellent as the girlfriend that starts out sweet and sparky, but ends up vulnerable and alienated by the darkness of Tom's world, while John Hodgkinson skilfully lets us see the pain behind Nidge's light-hearted facade. It's an altogether astonishing little slice of realism and hopefully speaks of great things to come for Luke Owen.