little scratch review: Rebecca Watson’s novel works magnificently on stage

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The cast of little scratch (Robert Day)
The cast of little scratch (Robert Day)

Hats off to Hampstead for some thrilling programming: Rebecca Watson’s formally experimental debut novel, shortlisted for both the Goldsmiths and Desmond Elliott Prize this year, has been brought to the stage by cool new playwright Miriam Battye and super director Katie Mitchell. Watson’s book takes us into the mind of a young woman, working in a dreary office job and coping with the aftermath of a sexual assault. Words and sentences are all over the page like a pinball machine. So does it work on stage? Yes, magnificently.

Four actors – Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá, Eleanor Henderson, Eve Ponsonby and Ragevan Vasan – each stand beneath a light and in front of a microphone, in plain black clothing. What they create together is like a piece of music, as this woman’s consciousness alternatively soothes and argues with itself. Before our eyes they magic up the mind’s detritus, from the minor irritations to the moments of embarrassing blankness, the prayers for a seat on a tube and the chastisements - “DON’T look at WhatsApp”. Office life, which this woman is numbed by, is wryly observed – those awkward hellos in the toilet, the clicking open of new tabs on a computer. All the while, Melanie Wilson’s elegant sound score throbs in the background, rising up at moments of tension.

Sarah Kane’s later poetic work is a legible influence, and banal thoughts are interrupted by bleaker ones. “Mmm... bed” is followed by “blood”. Every so often a sense of dread invades – sometimes in the form of the word itself, like an attack in the day’s duller moments. Gradually we learn that the woman was sexually assaulted in the office, something that is “not always there, not at the front...just lingers amidst the soil”. It resurfaces randomly, catching her off guard. What she’s really searching for is relief, which she sometimes gets by scratching her leg until it bleeds – the little scratch of the title. Should she tell her boyfriend? She rehearses it in her head, then doesn’t want to derail a moment of happiness as they eat chips together.

So this is a work about trauma, but it’s also about the frustrations of language and the chaos that goes on inside our heads. The attempt to bring that unnerving lack of quietness to the stage is strangely comforting. Amidst the cacophony, there’s an illuminating and unusual sense of beauty.

Hampstead Theatre, until 11 Dec; hampsteadtheatre.com

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