Review: little scratch at New Diorama Theatre

Following sell-out performances at Hampstead Theatre in 2021, little scratch, Miriam Battye’s adaptation of the novel by Rebecca Watson, returns for a short run at the New Diorama – and this astonishing production has lost none of the brilliance that earned Katie Mitchell a nomination for Best Director in the 2022 Evening Standard Awards. Following the life of an unnamed woman across the course of a regular Friday, the play explores how the protagonist’s life, relationships and health have been – and continue to be – impacted by a sexual assault in the workplace.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

This one character is played by four actors (Eleanor Henderson, Rebekah Murrell, Eve Ponsonby and Ragevan Vasan), whose voices overlap and intermingle in an eerily realistic portrayal of the woman’s inner monologue. Parts of this are easily relatable and even raise a laugh – the brief excitement of seeing a dog on the train, the irritation at her boyfriend’s ability to fall asleep almost instantly while she lies awake, her mind still whirling. But others begin to hint at something much darker – her persistent need throughout day and night to scratch at her skin, and her obvious, far beyond what we might consider “normal”, reluctance to arrive at the office and sit down at her “dreaded desk”. Long before she allows herself to think about it in explicit terms, we understand that something devastating has happened to her. But that doesn’t in any way lessen the impact when we hear the words said aloud – not least because as the play goes on, it becomes clear that inside her head is the only place she can verbalise her experience.

Much like its protagonist, Katie Mitchell’s production is much more complex than it initially appears to be. The actors each stand at a microphone against a plain set, each lit from above by a hanging lamp (with exquisitely subtle lighting design by Bethany Gupwell). And then they begin to speak, and not only the stage but the entire space comes alive as the main character’s internal and external worlds come together in a wall of sound that at times verges on overwhelming. In addition to the actors’ voices, Melanie Wilson’s sound design allows us to hear everyday life going on – traffic noise, the background hum of a working office – and also more intimate sounds, created by the actors through the use of on-stage props, like the brushing of teeth or the scratching of skin. It’s such a complete soundscape that the audience loses nothing at all by not seeing the action unfold; we have everything we need to each conjure up our own mind’s eye image.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Let’s be clear about one thing; little scratch is a brutal piece of theatre to sit through. The content warnings are well-founded, particularly in the latter stages of the play as the references to sexual assault become much more frequent and explicit. But it’s an important story that unfortunately far too many people will be able to relate to in some way, and the quality of the writing and genius of the production are undeniable. And if you step back a moment from the tough subject matter, it’s an exciting example of how theatre can create an entire world within one small room. A difficult watch, but – for those who are able to – definitely worth it.

little scratch continues at New Diorama Theatre until 13th May.

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