Review by Sam Waite
The arts can, and often have, been used as an outlet for intense discussions of difficult subjects. This can have a variety of outcomes, from being accused of promoting damaging thoughts and ideas to being praised for aiding in awareness of these topics. Scratches, a self-reflective work by writer-performer Aoife Kennan, has been created with the clear knowledge that its subject matter can be triggering and takes measures to avoid some common missteps.
As a warning, the play does contain references, both veiled and direct, to self-harm, depression, and suicidal ideation. Please do not attend if you don’t feel well-equipped to handle these subjects and know that you are not alone in these feelings and have support available.
Kennan performs in a role credited as Girl – it’s not necessarily the playwright herself, but she’s open enough to admit that there’s plenty of her in there. The show starts out as a one-woman show before being interrupted by Best Friend, an amalgamation of many friends Kennan has known, here played by Zak Ghazi-Torbati. This comedic pairing helps to soften the inherent harshness of the subject matter.
Both are exciting performers, always a thrill to watch no matter what they’re doing. Billed as a New Play / Cabaret / TED Talk / Confession, the hour-long piece jumps to-and-fro in terms of genre and talking points with the struggles that began in Girl’s early 20s as the connective tissue. Brevity from a short song about antidepressants (and a clever reprise about moving to a higher dosage) help to keep the mood from becoming overwhelmingly heavy. Elsewhere there are moments of direct confession by Kennan, where she is simply telling a story about what she did (always in vague terms) and what brought the feeling about.
Aoife Kennan is a joy to watch at times, bursting onto the stage and insisting that we cheer as she dances about the stage. At other times, she brings a sombre grace to her performance that makes you feel like this is the first and only time these stories are being told. Likewise, Zak Ghazi-Torbati is able to shift effortlessly between his role as a slightly bitchy friend half-mocking the roles he’s asked to play (both of Kenna’s parents amongst them) but also as a performer who has his own doubts about whether the show they’re creating will do anything but cause further pain.
Director Gabriella Bird is on fine form, reigning in the excesses of the performers to keep a delicate balance of structure and spontaneity throughout. Her assured, confident hand is most easily seen in a moment later in the show where the performers, as themselves, address Ghazi-Torbati’s reservations about the show. While the most clearly staged and rehearsed part of the evening, this scene still feels wholly natural, Bird’s direction serving only to make it easier for us as an audience to digest.
A moving, intelligent, thought-provoking hour, Scratches also proves to be very funny when called for. The result of a tight-knit team of talented creatives exploring a topic that clearly carries an emotional weight and personal connection for each of them. While the material may prove challenging for many, it’s an increasingly relevant topic for those who feel they can handle the conversation.
Though at times deeply upsetting, it is also genuinely uplifting in its final outlook. A surprisingly complete piece of work for something so experimental in style and tone, this may prove to be a highlight of this year’s Vault Festival.
Scratches plays at VAULT Festival until 5th February, The festival continues throughout March. See vaultfestival.com for all of the listings
Production photos by Steve Gregson