This year’s winner of the Papatango new writing prize, Unscorched examines the complexities of working in child protection and whether it is ever really possible to stop our professional lives from bleeding into our personal lives. Unscorched bleakly suggests that we can’t, as we see the earnest Tom (skilfully and subtly portrayed by Ronan Raftery) struggle to forge a relationship with Emily (Eleanor Wyld) while taking on his new role: watching and reporting on online child abuse.
Playwright Luke Owen cleverly explores the tension between how vital and noble this type of work is, and how trying it can be for those who must undertake it and then try to leave it behind at the end of the working day. Georgina Lowe’s compartmentalised set, comprised of cubes and cupboards, serves perfectly to underpin this message. Interestingly, in the midst of such a complex issue, this tension that Owen creates serves both to encourage a great sympathy for the characters (and of course in turn, those who really tackle this work), while at the same time making it hard not to wonder why we feel so sorry for these people, when those victims they seek to protect have it so much worse. In a way, our compassion is as misplaced as it is genuine, and in turn the play is as safe as it is bold.
Unscorched is marked by stellar performances, such as John Hodgkinson’s upbeat Nidge, who spends his evenings alone gluing model airplanes together, making him a fascinating figure to observe. And therein lies the play’s tragedy, as we come to realise that even strong and sensible Nidge’s seeming ability to cope is a complete facade. Equally, the budding romance between Tom and Emily bubbles with a wonderful awkwardness and attraction in the early scenes, but simply by nature of the play’s content, we always have a sense that their relationship is doomed. And indeed, the play stumbles towards a predictable ending as we see the disintegration of their relationship, highlighting again the message that nobody can bear witness to such cruelties and not be deeply affected, no matter how much they fight to remain detached.
That is not to say that the play isn’t making pertinent and interesting points, such as the well-articulated argument between Tom and Nidge about Tom’s gradual desensitisation to the material he is viewing: “If you care, it will kill you,” Nidge reminds him. It is this idea which becomes most unsettling to muse on after leaving the theatre, as, having watched the emotional wreckage of these characters caused by their exposure to this horrific material, the play seems to offer a caution to audiences: to steer clear of these issues for fear that the same personal and professional catastrophe might occur in our own lives. And though Unscorched earnestly tries to get audiences to open their eyes to the widespread, though hidden, abuse occurring all around them, it nonetheless reminds us that life is easier and less painful when we ignore or avoid the problem, as we already do as a society – which is the very problem in itself.
Certainly, Unscorched is worthwhile viewing, both for its interesting perspective on abuse, and the seamless performances of its expert cast. It’s only unfortunate that such a worthy topic is underserved not only by the play’s general lack of drama and predictability, but even more so for the lightness of its touch which absolves the audience of the very lack of caring and desensitisation which it deplores.
Unscorched is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.