Vault Festival, London – until 5 February 2023
The subject of Aoife Kennan’s Scratches is a tough one for many reasons – one of which is that, for very good reasons, she can’t actually talk openly about it. And so a sort of code develops between performers and audience over the course of this courageous, devastating and yet simultaneously very funny one-hour show, in which any reference to its core topic is described only as “the Thing”.
If that sounds confusing or frustrating, it’s actually neither. Girl (Kennan) has been self-harming for years, ever since she was 20 when, in her own words, she “got sad”. It would be irresponsible to describe that behaviour in detail to an audience, at the risk of – even inadvertently – glorifying or encouraging it in others. Hence, the Thing. Fortunately, Kennan is an extremely good writer, capable of taking her personal experience and expressing Girl’s confused feelings and motivations without needing to get into the gory details. While not everyone in the audience will understand self-harm, most of us can relate to the emotions behind it: depression, anxiety, loneliness, loss, all of which are described by Kennan with eloquence and unflinching honesty.
Does that all sound a bit heavy-going? Well never fear, because Girl’s exceedingly fabulous Best Friend (Zak Ghazi-Torbati) is here – eventually – to provide light relief and much-needed moral support, whether that takes the form of a hug or a glitter-infused song and dance routine. Together, the pair take us through a series of events in Girl’s life, not necessarily in chronological order, and not all directly related to the play’s central topic. Through the ever versatile Best Friend, we meet Girl’s mum, dad, ex-boyfriend and others, and each event helps us piece together a little more of the story that brought her here.
I have no idea if they’re best friends in real life or not, but Kennan and Ghazi-Torbati are a brilliant double act, to the point where it’s difficult to tell how much of their interaction is scripted and how much just sort of… happens. Best Friend’s character is written to be larger than life and scene-stealing, and Ghazi-Torbati absolutely smashes the brief – but in the end, his attention and ours always comes back to Kennan’s Girl, making sure she’s at centre stage to be heard and seen by everyone in the room.
There’s genuine warmth and respect between the two, and as a result, though the show deals with some hard topics, it’s also a joyous celebration of the power of friendship; of having a shoulder to cry on, or a dance partner, or someone to join you on stage as you bare your soul to strangers. Ultimately you can’t help but leave Scratches feeling uplifted, and in awe of the courage it took to make it. Don’t be put off by the subject matter; this is a must-see.
Scratches continues at the Vault Festival until 5th February.
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