Unscorched opens with an office worker having a nervous breakdown at work. So when his replacement Tom is introduced into the play, it is clear that he’s not in for an easy time. Gradually it emerges that Tom is taking on a job that consists of investigating web links that have been flagged as potentially containing child abuse. The reality that the audience is confronted by at the point is that there really are people out there who have to do this. It’s something that one may not have thought consciously about before, but with 50-60,000 regular viewers of child pornography in the UK according to the play’s publicity material, Unscorched is testimony that, yes, there are people who have to do this, and it’s every bit as tough as you could imagine.
As is often the case with grim subject matter such as this, comedy comes surprisingly easily to the play, particularly from the gratingly dissonant jollity of Tom’s colleague Nidge and from Tom’s awkward experience of speed-dating, and director Justin Audibert has skilfully extracted every bit of this comic potential while balancing it carefully with the gravity of the story. Luke Owen’s script, which won this year’s Papatango New Writing prize, is funny, subtle and understated, and allows the actors to perform with an almost filmic, natural quality that absolutely grips its audience in the intimate space.
The actors take full advantage of this unaffected script, and the performances are wonderfully convincing. As Tom, played with low-key sincerity by Ronan Raftery, battles first with horror at what he has to watch every day, then with the new horror of realising he’s becoming immune to it, an understanding of the moral turmoil that comes with this job is absolutely inescapable. Eleanor Wyld is excellent as the endearingly gauche Emily, and heartbreaking when the job inevitably begins to pull Tom away from her. John Hodgkinson and George Turvey, as Tom’s cheerfully deadened, institutionalised colleagues, complete the almost-parody of the modern office environment that surrounds Tom, designed by Georgia Lowe as a mutating nightmare of chequered carpet boards, economical space solutions and cursory pot plants.
The play is a short one-acter, running at around an hour and a quarter, and its feels as if the script stops just short of allowing us contact with the terrible things that face Tom on his computer screen, giving us just the emotional distance from it that Tom and Nidge strive to keep. However, seeing Tom’s face as he watches what turns out to be a ‘level 5’ link, it’s hard not to imagine for ourselves what he’s seeing, and the play leaves an audience with an uncomfortable feeling of proximity to a very dark online world.
**** (4 stars)
Runs until 23rd November