Review by Harry Bower
Content Warning: Review references accounts of sexual assault
We all have an internal dialogue in our minds. For some, that dialogue may manifest itself as just plain thoughts, for others it may be a conversation with yourself – but it’s always there. As I write this review, mine is remembering the weather on the way home from the New Diorama Theatre on Friday night (I got drenched), and acknowledging the gentle roll of the train I’m sat on. Yes, sometimes our internal thoughts are that boring.
little scratch has returned to the stage after a run at Hampstead Theatre in 2021, and Katie Mitchell’s adaption of Rebecca Watson’s acclaimed novel is one of the most all-consuming experiences available in a theatre right now. Exhausting in so many brilliant ways, it exposes its audience to a day in the life of an aspiring writer and newsroom assistant; an unnamed woman dealing with the aftermath of having been sexually assaulted by her boss at work. Four microphones with atmospheric lamps hanging above each of them play host to four actors, spaced equally apart in the appropriately intimate studio space. Together, they represent the woman’s internal dialogue, her thoughts taking centre stage, often overlapping and contradicting. Each voice contributes to mini crescendos which crash like waves on the shore as the woman goes about her day.
The struggles of getting out of bed. Brushing her teeth. Hopping on the tube and messaging mum. Arriving at the office, getting through the monotony of work, counting down the minutes until the next break. Poetry night with the boyfriend. These are all standard, everyday activities which will be familiar to many, and that relatability is one of this play’s strengths. With humour and vulnerability, the inner dialogue questions everything, and embraces the woman’s anxieties and insecurities. Inevitably the impact of the sexual assault dominates every seemingly innocuous moment or interaction. That juxtaposition is jarring and uncomfortable to watch, causing tightness in my chest during some scenes as they built.
The writing is so convincingly grounded in realism that at times I wondered if this was somehow a verbatim piece, a true story told through the prism of thought. There are no holes barred and no filters added to the character’s journey as she fights off feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and powerlessness. As threads overlap and the identity of the perpetrator is revealed, the empathetic side of my personality struggled to watch, but I also struggled to look away. If there are lulls midway through in which attention might drift, it is thanks only to the intensity of its peaks which left me breathless. For those who work in an office you may find yourself drifting into autopilot between dramatic moments.
As the actors on-stage guide us through the day, they participate in the crafting of the outstanding soundscape complimenting an original score by Melanie Wilson. As well as representing people on the end of the phone, or colleagues, the cast use props, food, and water, to create realistic sounds which bolster the masterful storytelling, in ways which transcend the stage. Closing your eyes in a theatre might not feel natural, but doing so during littlescratch provokes a unique emotional response unlike anything I have experienced before. This soundscape might be the best I’ve ever heard. It is intrusive at the right moments and subtly impactful in others, never feeling out of place or inappropriate. It is perfectly pitched as the accompaniment to the character’s thoughts, and its constant presence in the piece is a reminder that life unrelentingly moves forward at pace, regardless of circumstance.
Watching this show is like watching a body with four heads. Each performer delivers their participation in lockstep with one another. No line is wasted, no inflection misplaced, no tone accidental. They have mastered this piece, and the relationship they have with their words, and each other. Four intense monologues weave together in a chorus of noise, beautifully suppressing the world around their character in favour of amplifying emotional bruising – each line delivered with a laser focus. Eleanor Henderson, Rebekah Murrell, Eve Ponsonby, and Ragevan Vasan deserve equal credit for participating in a phenomenal ensemble, which manages to tackle serious topics with huge emotional weight in such a sensitive way – something which must require intense emotional commitment from each of them. Their character may have been robbed of her ability to be present in the moment, but the cast here feel every line on her behalf.
little scratch is a confronting and alarming piece of theatre, which leaves you asking questions about the people you spend your time with. So many people, women in particular, are living with uncomfortable truths – lived experiences which keep them awake at night or have damaged their mental health forever. The show is a reminder of hypocrisy and sexism in the workplace, the importance of safe spaces, and the implications of sexual assault on victims, which can manifest itself as self-harm. I wrote above that this piece is exhausting, and that’s true. Imagine you wrote down every thought you had in a day; everything you thought about saying but didn’t, every contradiction in your brain, every judgement, every silly joke you make in your head, and then you presented it in a monologue. It would not only be exhausting, but erratic and nonsensical, too. That it’s not, is down to not just the stellar writing and brilliant cast but the depressing relatability of this topic.
little scratch is an outstanding adaptation of what must surely be an even more remarkable novel. It is intentionally uncomfortable for its audience and provokes an emotional response at every turn. Its writing is poignant and razor-sharp and its performances beautifully naturalistic, with an exemplary score. Earlier my internal dialogue was commenting on the weather. Now it’s telling me that I should end this review by urging you to buy tickets as soon as you can, because this show will deservedly sell out.
Little Scratch plays at the New Diorama Theatre until 13 May 2023. For more information and to buy tickets, visit: https://newdiorama.com/whats-on/little-scratch
Photos by Ellie Kurttz