“You go through life thinking there’s a limit to the things people will do to each other. But there’s not. There’s just not”
The Papatango New Writing Prize is now in its fifth year and continues its excellent working relationship with the Finborough Theatre in offering a month’s full run to the winning play. And following on from such interesting works as Dawn King’s Foxfinder and Louise Monaghan’s Pack, Luke Owen’s Unscorched feels a worthy winner, an intriguing debut play which navigates its intensely serious subject matter with a supremely deft touch.
That subject is child abuse, but specifically how it impacts those whose job it is to investigate the images and films that are flagged up as crimes against children. Owen’s play follows Tom as he starts a new job in such a digital analysis team and explores how the pervasive effects of what he has to watch permeate into every aspect of his life. Echoes of what he sees and hears taint his sense of normality, the challenge to his faith in human nature threatening his burgeoning relationship with the sweet Emily.
There’s fascinating insight into the way in which a convivial office environment is cultivated to help the workers decompress – daytime TV, video games and Simply Red CDs on tap for comfort breaks – and a subtly clever examination of the way in which we all find our own ways of avoiding discomfort in an increasingly graphic world. But what is most impressive in Owen’s writing is the way in which he suggests the world of horrors on the screens without resorting to shock tactics – the mere mention of ‘category five’ chilling the soul more than sufficiently.
Justin Audibert’s production is blessed with some stellar performances – Ronan Raftery is excellent as the increasingly disturbed Tom; John Hodgkinson superb as his senior colleague Nidge who loves nothing more than a celebratory Wagon Wheel but whose cheery bonhomie scarcely hides the corrosive long-term effects of the job; and Eleanor Wyld as the girlish Emily brings a lovely quirky warmth to their speed-dating and later scenes of abortive courtship.
But there’s also a brilliant set from Georgia Lowe, a masterclass in fringe design in its flexibility and adaptability and enhanced by Joshua Carr’s lighting, it quietly blisters its short way across our minds. If one were to be picky, the length of the play does work a little against it, the issues of all concerned barely scratched before it is over, but admittedly this does help in keeping the tone of the writing balanced away from sensationalism and rather cleverly for a new writer, leaves us very much wanting more.