A red triangular handle hangs from a red pull-cord, dangling beside a chair. It can mean just one thing: we’re in a care home, and the man we see staring at the TV is nearing the end of his life. But it’s been quite a life. As he shares and acts out his reminiscences, we learn of lovers in Cairo and in Northumbria; of battles at the county fair, and among the desert sand; and of the escaped Luftwaffe pilot he tracked for two sleepless days, amidst the scorching heat of the Sahara.
That last tale of World War Two heroism gets oddly little focus and, actually, I wonder if the play would be all that different if it didn't feature at all. But it doesn't matter; an isolated incident isn't what Scorched is about. Instead, it shows the war as a stage of life – preceded by a tough upbringing, and followed by bursts of alcohol-fuelled rage. There's no judgement here, but nor is anything excused; it's a whole life laid bare, and the interpretation is left to the audience.
The man's ageing mind is failing, so the stories come in fragments – scrambled, out of order, occasionally abandoned and sometimes resumed. But although the narrative's confused, it's never confusing, as playwright Lisle Turner weaves a clear thread through this jumble of places and times. The connections are sometimes surprising ones, challenging our expectations about what it means to endure trauma; in one moment we hear a hideously visceral description of battle, yet a few seconds later, it's the death of an animal in England which reduces our hero to tears.
Robin Berry's performance is superb. His monologue is distant and halting, as his character’s illness demands; but he transcends those obstacles to build a relatable, slightly roguish personality, whose flaws and failings we inherently want to forgive. He's aided by Andrew Purvin's striking set design – which uses everyday pieces of furniture to perfectly evoke a desert, an army truck, or a motorbike. Sand is a recurring motif too, with a couple of breathtaking cascades to enjoy, while some clever and unexpected projections offer further treats for the eyes.
The one big failing – and I very, very nearly knocked a star off for this – is that numerous scenes are performed on the floor, making them invisible to all but the first couple of rows of the audience. Aspiring Fringe directors, take note: never do things on the floor. But I picked up what I was missing easily enough, and even when I couldn't see Berry my spine still tingled at his words.
That self-inflicted would aside, Scorched is a lacerating play that still achieves balance and nuance. It invites no pity for the wartime hero, but it helps us respect and understand him. My own respect goes to all those involved in this striking and thought-provoking production.