Little Scratch: Hampstead Theatre ****
- Credit: Robert Day
An adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness novel staged in Hampstead’s intimate studio by avant-garde director Katie Mitchell, is quite an event.
Mitchell is the closest the UK gets to a theatrical auteur, a director who tackles intense psychological works with forensic precision. Her style and approach borders on psychiatric study and has garnered her a fanbase across Europe.
But she's also a director who divides audiences. Here, familiar devices are used to capture a day in the life of an unnamed office assistant. Four actors address the audience directly through microphones, while minimal props and hyperrealist soundscapes evoke the persistent loneliness of a young woman in a dead-end editorial job.
There are no live cinema projections – something of a Mitchell trademark – perhaps because visual trickery would undermine the sense of boredom and inertia. The woman dreams of being a writer but must face the daily dread of humdrum routine and an abusive male employer. On the darkened set, two desks, glasses and scrubbing brushes are the only props. Detail is everything: the trickle of water down the throat as the woman drinks, the subtle shift in breathing as anxiety escalates then drains away.
Often painfully intrusive, the competing voices in the woman’s head are made manifest by the talented ensemble who gaze out at the audience as if dropped from some troubling metaphysical planet, their arms pinned to their sides. Only Eve Ponsonby, who presents the main voice, is less constrained: her fingers flutter and grip. The crisscross lines are perfectly timed and rueful comic delivery is keenly pitched.
Miriam Battye’s adaptation is sensitive and intelligent. From the moment the woman wakes and showers whilst trying to avoid scratching the skin sores that trouble her continuously to her final release – sex and sleep – we are privy to every detail: the clock watching, tender WhatsApp-ing with her boyfriend, the office politics, even a gloriously pretentious poetry evening.
If the unfolding dramatization of workplace rape seems rather predictable, that’s fitting too given the way this everywoman sublimates trauma. Memorable and superbly staged.