Sunday, 3 November 2013

Theatre review: Unscorched

For the third year running the Finborough Theatre hosts the Papatango playwrighting competition, although this year they've simplified things further and are just presenting the winner in a full production. Luke Owen's Unscorched looks at what for most people must be the epitome of a dirty job they'd rather someone else did. Tom (Ronan Raftery) has just started a job in digital analysis for child protection services. What this translates into is clicking on website links that have been flagged up as suspicious, and determining whether or not they really show one of five categories of child abuse; if so, he passes them on to the police. Many prove innocent but the ones that do need action can be traumatic to watch. Tom's determination to do a good thing is tested by the reality of the job, and the ways it affects his new relationship.

Unscorched opens with a scene of Tom's predecessor Simon (Richard Atwill) breaking down completely, so we know from the start that Tom's assurances that he can handle the job are going to be tested. Owen's play doesn't try to shock the audience (the images of abuse are blank and the descriptions kept vague but ominous) but it does make it clear that the anonymous office he shares with the eerily calm Nidge (John Hodgkinson) hides more than first meets the eye.

What keeps the play from becoming bleak is a lightness that contrasts with the dark matter on the computer screens. Tom keeps bumping into Emily (Eleanor Wyld) at a series of speed-dating events and after an awkward start the two hit it off. The adorable Raftery and confident Wyld have great chemistry and Justin Audibert's production plays it pretty much as a romantic comedy (I can totally sympathise with Emily just wanting to touch his hair.) As well as stopping the audience from getting depressed by the subject matter, this light approach to the relationship makes us root for it to succeed, and gives Tom something to lose as his working life starts to encroach on it: Wyld is great as Emily finds herself more and more frequently making a throwaway comment that triggers a terrible memory in her boyfriend.

Raftery is a really likeable lead, vulnerable-looking but with a steely determination that makes you hope Tom can pull off the work he's put himself in for. He's nicely balanced by Hodgkinson's Nidge, who's somehow found a way to keep going without letting the images affect him - but as Tom finds, reaching this point may be the hardest thing to deal with of all. Their office setup is completed by George Turvey's Mark, the boss who knows what kind of stress his workers are dealing with but doesn't get his own hands dirty.

Georgia Lowe's checkerboard traverse set hides a number of little cupboards and doors that help quickly convert the grey office space into the more colourful world outside it, and once again Unscorched sees the Papatango competition find a promising new writer with a short sharp shock of a debut play, intensely acted and directed.

Unscorched by Luke Owen is booking until the 23rd of November at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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