Like the progress bar of a steadily loading web page, Unscorched creeps into your brain much as the online material creeps into its characters’ souls. Playwright Luke Owen and director Michelle Montague have created a grim evening’s entertainment that explores the coexistence of depravity and normalcy. Tom (David Green) is a new recruit in the analysis of online images of child abuse, alongside senior analyst Nidge (Neil Auker). Manager Mark (Joe Darbyshire) supervises with due condescension as Tom finds himself increasingly distressed with the disturbing material he encounters. Tom’s growing romance with Emily (Hattie Amey) suffers significantly as the narrative progresses, otherwise innocent phrases and actions triggering unexpected reactions in him.
Unscorched’s great strength is its merging of the extreme and the everyday. Owen’s heartfelt and relatable script includes a recognisable office environment, complete with refreshment and recreation facilities, passwords and procedures, and office terminology designed to neutralise and contain the provocative material. Suspect websites carry innocuous reference numbers and high numbers designate the severity of the material. As a result, when Tom encounters a “5”, the audience can imagine the sort of images he is seeing. Montague’s direction, however, emphasises the failure of these containment measures. Some scenes begin before the lights rise and others continue after blackout. The stage is divided into three sections and characters usually enter and exit through the sections’ respective doors, but sometimes they cross from one section into another. This spilling of the narrative outside the confines of the space illustrates that the horrors Tom encounters at work cannot simply be left at the office – rather they remain a constant, gnawing presence. Yet the work goes on, Tom’s distress contrasted against Nidge’s logical detachment. The play asks what is the appropriate response to human suffering – paralysing anguish or professional dispassion? No answers are given, the audience left to decide how they would react in such a situation.
Unscorched continues at the Sewell Barn Theatre until Saturday 6th December. Tickets can be purchased through the theatre’s website.