Brighton Fringe 2017
Funny how life loops round and catches up with itself. Watching ‘Scorched’ brought up the memory of a passage from ‘Justine’, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’. The book’s set in Alexandria during the Second World War, and there’s an old policeman called Scobie, very old now and living almost completely alone with just his memories, but –
‘One by one his memories leak through the faulty machinery of his mind until he no longer knows them for his own. Behind him I see the long grey rollers of the Atlantic at work, curling up over his memories, smothering them in spray, blinding him. When he speaks of the past it is in a series of short dim telegrams – as if already communications were poor, the weather inimical to transmission … the long effortless tides patrol the barrier between himself and his memory.’
Jack Dobson had been a policeman too, a lance-corporal in the military police in Egypt during the war, sometimes even in that same city of Alex, but now it’s the early nineties and he’s in a care home somewhere back in England. The Gulf War has started, Operation Desert Storm, and on the TV they’re bombing the shit out of the Iraqis. As the light from the television flickers over his face, the sounds of the war reporting take him back to the desert fifty years before.
When we talk of dementia, we almost always look at it from the outside. ‘Scorched’ takes us inside, into Jack’s world, and it’s a surreal place – nightmarishly unstable.
It’s a desert world; there’s sand everywhere, covering the whole Rialto stage, and Jack’s armchair and the TV are set down in it, along with a few small bits of furniture – a standard lamp, a tiny table and a piano stool with handles. They’re all decorated in warm ochre colours, rather as if they’ve been camouflaged. He often talks directly to characters in his past. Occasionally he responds to people who must be in the room with him, other residents or staff, but they’ve become incorporated into his memories too.
Jack’s made a paper aeroplane, and as the sound of the bombs fills the room he flies it round in his hands like a small boy before crashing it down into the sand. Then he’s down on all fours, peering across the dunes at the broken fuselage of the crashed plane, looking for any survivors. None. So at last he goes back to his armchair and takes up a cup of tea. He doesn’t drink it, though – just tips it sideways so that a stream of sand pours out to form a small pile between his feet.
Jack instructs his comrades in desert survival – “The sun’ll burn the fight right out of a man”, fretting that – “the magnetite in the rocks affects your compass like the sun does your mind” Robin Berry plays Jack with a convincing Geordie accent and the hard voice of a working-class soldier. But that’s only in his memory, of course. When he returns fleetingly to the present he’s frail and stooped and his voice quavers. Berry was completely convincing each time he moved back to his chair and the decades piled on to the aged body.
As the young Jack, there’s a canvas holster on the arm of his chair and he pulls out his service revolver to threaten someone – “Why are you smiling?” There are sounds of battle as he moves around the stage. “And if a tank got hit by an eighty-eight” – there’s a huge explosion at this, filling the space and deafening us momentarily. Then it’s exercise, boxing with his men, feinting and dodging before delivering a knockout punch. The action segues, and suddenly he’s actually boxing with his brothers, being encouraged by his father – “I cannot abide weakness, I taught you to look after yourself” – but that must have been years before …
‘Scorched’ is a hugely inventive production. Each piece of furniture played several roles – at one point Jack hid behind the armchair to escape enemy fire, then pushed up the seat from underneath like it was a hatch-cover and stuck his head through as the crew member of a tank. Another time they’re leaving Tobruk in a truck, and Jack’s sitting up on the arm of the chair, shaking with the vibration of the vehicle over the rocky road, as he lights a cigarette and passes it to a comrade, to light his.
The frequent light changes were disturbing, lamps flickering as explosions rocked the space. At one point he distils some very potent alcohol and gets drunk – the whole stage illuminated from first one side and then the other, back and forth, and the music got louder and louder to produce a visceral disorientation as the room itself seemed to be rocking. But that must have been later, when he was back home with the children, because then he took a strap and beat his wife…
Jack’s memories jump back and forth. He’s built a gypsy caravan for his kids, he moves the piano stool in front of the armchair and he’s up sitting on the back, slapping the reins of the horse as he takes them into the country. Opens the door and “let them run wild – I sat and smoked and I never knew such peace”. But in a later sequence he’s just got home from the war, demobbed, and he gets himself a motorbike. – “a reconditioned three-fifty Enfield”. Jack knelt over the piano stool and it became his bike, leaning into the bends as he headed north from Newcastle – he’s a Geordie, remember. “I stopped for something to eat, and a girl called Peggy put salt on my chips”.
In that way of things – we soon see Jack with a child, a baby, a small screaming bundle he picks up from the side of the stage. Then there are two more and he’s rocking three in his arms – these must be the children he remembered earlier, in the caravan …
There’s puppetry, too, and very convincing physical theatre. I won’t spoil the effect for you (you’ll just have to go and see the show) but a bunch of sandbags become a human figure; a prisoner Jack’s escorting to Alexandria by train. The prisoner manages to free himself and escape, and as he looks for him Jack balances himself with one foot each on the small table and the piano stool, rocking with the motion of the railcars as he’s peering up and down the track.
I haven’t mentioned Jack’s horse that dies, or the tattoos of the Egyptian girl he loved in Alex, or the little island that became home, which he built from a small mound of sand with a castle and little houses – “all built from the same stone as the castle, rub it with your hand, warm and gritty. Sandstone” It was close to the front of the stage, lit by a warm yellowish lamp like a sunset, and the perspective made Jack’s face loom over it, almost like a god looking down at his creation. As the light faded down I was close to tears.
I haven’t mentioned the music, either. Music seems to cling tenaciously in memory, and Jack’s memories were heightened by a very evocative sound track: from forties jazz and swing to English pastoral and Scottish pipes. Director Claire Coaché has really brought Lisle Turner’s writing to life.
It’s ironic – how a show about failing memory should be unforgettable; but it is. ‘Scorched’ is a truly outstanding production.