little scratch

Rebecca Watson, adapted for the stage by Miriam Battye
Hampstead Downstairs / Celia Atkin
Hampstead Theatre

Eve Posonby, Eleanor Henderson, Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá and Ragevan Vasan Credit: Robert Day

Faced with a black box with a row of four microphones with a couple of tables between them piled with assorted objects, it looked as though this was going to be a production along the lines of an old Wooster Group show or something mediated like director Katie Mitchell’s earlier Waves. I found that technically fascinating but for me theatre magic is in communication between actor and audience. But don’t go by what a photograph shows you. This minimalist production, beautifully matched to its material, proves a triumph.

little scratch (the lack of capitals follows the author’s titling) follows a young woman from the moment she stirs into wakefulness through the day until she falls asleep again. It is a relatively routine day from disentangling herself from her duvet, getting ready to go out, commuting to the newspaper office where she has an assistant’s job, switching on the computer, making phone calls, a canteen lunch, a trip to the toilet, cycling home and going to bed with her boyfriend, but behind it there is an ongoing trauma.

It is packed with meticulous detail: the dog on the train, the flight that she books for her boss, the clam chowder on the office menu, the note that she finds in the toilet, but there is something he can’t get out of her mind: she needs to tell her boyfriend about it, the boyfriend whose cock she was thinking about when she woke up in the morning. How does she tell him about what her boss did?

None of this is acted out. The four excellent actors don’t perform or even narrate it. Eve Ponsonby, Eleanor Henderson, Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá and Ragevan Vasan stand stationary behind their microphones; they aren't playing characters but what is going on in her head: what she thinks, what she hears.

Miriam Battye’s adaptation and Katie Mitchell’s production provide a match for the novel’s typography which scatters words and phrases cross the page. Melanie Wilson’s sound score provides the day’s ambient noise, the traffic, the crowds, the telephone ringing. The actors become foley artists to provide person noises like cleaning teeth. Their voices present this woman’s thoughts or parts of thoughts in constant flow and register what is seen or heard. They are like relay runners passing a baton, though here they may overtake each other or several take hold of it at the same time.

Eve Ponsonby is the more animated, allowed to make gestures; perhaps hers are the thoughts about doing things. Eleanor Henderson is largely impassive, though briefly allowed a little movement, but Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá and Ragevan Vasan move only to create sound effects and all four stay looking forward, only sound interacting.

It is no spoiler to reveal that this is a woman reacting to being raped; that becomes clear early on. She scratches her skin (the titular little scratch) in an almost subconscious effort to remove its pollution, memory surfaces of the scoriating male gaze even when she was a little girl.

There is no self-dramatisation here; life goes on with its pleasures and its banalities and snatches of humour, but her trauma still surfaces. For a mesmerising 100 minutes without interval, little scratch projects her thoughts into our heads. The method is beautifully matched to the content.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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