In World War II, soldiers psychologically damaged by the horrors of what they saw were said to be ‘shell shocked’. There was less sympathy for them and their families well-being after the conflict, little to no aftercare, and post traumatic stress disorder was unheard of.
Currently touring the UK, one man show Scorched is based on the true story of playwright Lisle Turner’s grandfather, Jack. He was bare knuckle boxing before he was a teenager, and believed that a man should be able to fight his way through any challenge, never showing emotion. He openly said that he couldn’t abide weakness, and it was only when he developed dementia in his eighties that his personality changed, and he began to talk about his experiences in the army at all.
In an after show discussion with the actor and creators of the play, Turner said that his subject had his faults, but that he was his grandfather and he loved him. The piece deals with Jack sensitively. You don’t hold his aggression against him, because the actor Robin Berry conveys a raw sadness and despair behind it.
In a defining moment in his life, Jack pursued a German officer over the unforgiving Sahara. In Scorched he finds himself in a care home during the first Gulf War. The conflict, which is playing out on the television, serves to show that the cycle of war repeats itself. WWII is over but the desert is still used as a battlefield.
Jack became senile as he aged. There are parts where he is disorientated and has a confused, lost look. These are matched with windows of animated lucidity. The stories he tells in the 70 minute monologue come all at once, in rapid fire. After all, he had been holding them in for fifty years.
Sand runs throughout the show. It’s all over the stage and in the actor’s clothes, symbolic of the fact that he can’t cleanse himself of the past. Everything is bathed in browny yellow light.
The play involves some brilliantly inventive use of props and effects. Images are projected onto a falling waterfall of sand and a spinning lampshade. In quirkier moments, Berry puts his head through the seat of an arm chair and makes a sandcastle with biscuits standing in for buildings.
Jack acknowledges he uses moonshine as a coping mechanism for difficult memories. In one of the few laughs in the show, he happily tells the audience that his bootleg alcohol is 80-90% ethanol. It’s bittersweet though. Many veterans suffer with drug and alcohol dependence.
Scorched was originally conceived as a film, but has really taken off in theatres. It was a big success story at the Edinburgh festival in 2016, and the audience at Jacksons Lane were moved to give a standing ovation. It’s a personal play with the strength to impact many.