Friday, 28 November 2014

Unscorched : Sewell Barn, Norwich

I've expressed the view before that my favorite theatrical experiences are often the most surprising. They are the shows that are new, or at least new to me; themed on subject matter that may sound unpromising, or scary, or challenging; evenings that don't necessarily promise a cosy, feelgood, warm-and-fluffy legacy, but what they deliver is of far more value than that. If I want warm-and-fluffy, I'll get a Richard Curtis movie off the DVD shelf, thanks.

Unscorched doesn't sound like a jolly evening out. Written by local Norwich playwright Luke Owen, it takes us on a journey into the world of 'digital analysis': the characters are involved in investigating websites, photographs and videos, relating to child abuse. It brings home forcefully the strain of such work on the private lives of those whose job it is to investigate such matters, and how it affects their own ability to live, love and continue.

It's not devoid of humour - far from it. Just as paramedics and other emergency services develop a 'black humour' to keep their sanity when faced with ghastly situations, Owen's writing keeps us facepalming with embarrassed recognition at dating awkwardness, laughing aloud at the diversionary tactics used by the investigators (Buckaroo, anybody?), or smiling with pleasure at successfully tender moments. It makes the effect all the harsher when we are faced with the very real pain and trauma encountered by his characters.

Not only is this a superb piece of writing (Owen captures a completely natural reality in all his dialogue; he maintains a gripping narrative thread, and he treats an unbearably difficult subject with great sensitivity) but it is performed, set and directed with a precision and skill that took my breath away. Jonathan Adkins' set is a triumph, enabling the shifting focus between scenes to work beautifully - and I shall never look at a post-it note in the same way again. Michelle Montague's direction is unobtrusive, thorough, elegant and focused. Her magnificent cast, without exception, present performances of the greatest integrity. Every one of them turned in a performance that was professional, absorbing and completely convincing. All five actors were magnificent, but I especially want to commend the actor in the 'smallest' role - appearing only in the first scene: Myles Crowder's completely convincing work in that very short time was a masterpiece, and bears out the old saying about small parts and small actors - in no small measure.

And I'll tell you something else: it was enormously enjoyable. Of course it was dark, shocking, upsetting; with that subject matter, it could barely be anything else. But it was also full of opportunity, skill, hope and tenderness - and, yes, laughter. The show left me feeling as I do when I read a particularly good novel that I (a) am totally absorbed in, to the exclusion of the rest of the world, and (b) absolutely do not want to end.

If you wish to be intrigued, captivated, moved, convinced and provoked to thought, I would strongly recommend that you do not miss this play. Theatre of this calibre is a gift. Take it.

Unscorched runs from 27-29 Nov and 3-6 Dec at 7.30pm with a matinĂ©e on 6 Dec at 2.30pm. Tickets available online, in person or by phone; click here for details.