Writer: Luke Owen
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
Unscorched, the debut play by Luke Owen, is the winner of this year’s Papatango New Writing Prize, an award that’s previously gone to such critically well-received works as Dawn King’s Foxfinder (2011) and Louise Monaghan’s Pack (2012). Apparently selected unanimously by the judges from more than 500 entries, Owen’s text is a tight piece that gets into provocative, timely territory. The damaging effect that the habitual viewing of pornographic and violent imagery can have upon the human psyche is undoubtedly a topic of urgent inquiry for our age, and that’s the central concern of this play, which examines the impact of such imagery upon the people whose job it is to view it: namely, those working in the child protection area of digital forensics.
The play commences with a breakdown. An archivist, Simon (Richard Atwill), unable to bear witnessing the heinous images of abuse that he’s paid to analyse, cracks up and quits. The focus then shifts to Tom (Ronan Raftery), a quiet young man who takes over Simon’s job and soon finds himself equally disturbed by the material. Juxtaposed with Tom’s experiences at his work-place, where he interacts with his blithe but sympathetic colleague Nidge (John Hodgkinson) and his supervisor Mark (George Turvey), are scenes tracing his budding romance with a museum-worker, Emily (Eleanor Wyld). It’s a relationship that seems full of promise but that starts to falter due to Tom’s disgust and despair at the imagery he’s viewing.
In Finborough form, Owen’s play comes complete with a horrific statistic: that there are over 50,000 regular viewers of images of child abuse in the UK alone. But what’s most admirable about Unscorched is that it avoids a lurid tabloid-style approach to its subject matter. Rather, Owen’s writing is sensitive and favours implication over explicitness, introducing us to the clinical discourse used by the archivists (in which the footage is ranked in categories from 1 – 5 depending upon the intensity of the abuse featured) and highlighting the decidedly bizarre strategies in place for any workers traumatised by the imagery. (These include breaks to view such “relaxing” TV programmes as The X Factor and The Jerry Springer Show.) The play is sharp on the dynamics of office life, and Tom’s interactions with Nidge are especially strong, as the two men debate the necessity (or otherwise) of becoming desensitised to the material, and viewing it “with distance”, a feat that Nidge has (apparently) accomplished. “If you care, it will kill you,” the older man warns the younger.
Placing the audience on either side of the action, which unfolds on a boxy grey strip of a set by Georgia Lowe, Justin Audibert’s pacy production is confident and well-performed by its committed cast of five, and benefits from an effective sound design by Richard Hammarton. The problem, though, is the brevity of the piece: with a running time of less than 90 minutes the play struggles to fully explore the issues it raises in as much detail as it might and there are some aspects and characters that require more development. But if Unscorched adds up to more of a sketch than a portrait in the end, it’s a compelling piece and one that marks Owen out as a playwright of promise.