Written into the story of Aiofe Kennan’s semi-autobiographical two-hander, Scratches, is the question of whether media depictions of self-harm can encourage others towards mimicry — the so-called Werther Effect — or help to channel self-destructive impulses, raise awareness, and provide alternative narratives and outcomes.
Embracing the power of speaking one’s truth, this confessional comedy-drama draws directly from Kennan’s experience of self-harm, unpacking the journey of its protagonist, Girl, through suffering in silence, feeling crushed by an abyss of sadness, and discovering the pain of others who carry a similar burden. The emotions are laid bare, and there is a delicate balance of what’s shown and not — extending even to the explicitness of the ‘scratches’ that give the play its title.
Accompanied by Zak Ghazi-Torbati who plays Girl’s camp, confident and somewhat tropey gay Best Friend, Kennan is determined to keep this story on its toes, injecting bursts of music, dance and humour into the piece to make light of the doctors who failed her, and the rollercoaster of living with mental illness. At times adopting a standup-style delivery, her life as an academically successful but emotionally troubled young woman unfolds with wit and complexity, and she is clearly a bright, engaging talent with lots to say.
With metatheatrical asides to Ghazi-Torbati, the playful pair confront the fear that hearing of others’ self-harm brings up, and the embarrassment and difficulty of sharing this with another person. Scratches knows the danger of its story, and there are times when this is acknowledged explicitly, such as when Best Friend stops the performances to ask if this is the right place to be processing Kennan’s experience. As with certain other key moments, the answer to this question is somewhat glossed over, and we are thrust back into a celebratory dance sequence that, while giving the performers a way to counter their difficult emotions, risks leaving the audience feeling left out and emotionally confused.
A great deal of effort has gone into providing follow-up resources in the shape of a ‘self-care pack’, but the show itself struggles at times to hold the needs of its audience. Mental health wounds are opened but not given space to resolve, and the devastatingly cold reaction from her parents after she is forced to ask for their help lingers after the show. What feels missing is a sense of how they should have reacted: the conversations that might have happened after that could empower the audience to support people in the future themselves. Is bearing witness to a failure of care enough?
While starting important and thought-provoking conversations, and demonstrating a knack for theatricality, Scratches could process and unpack Girl’s sadness more effectively, as its causes and qualities remain somewhat obscure. The show wobbles between its raw and heartfelt core and a feeling of occasionally being a little bit too clever. With a stronger healing journey to follow, the conclusion could leave us feeling a greater sense of hope and strength in Kennan/Girl’s experience, and a little bit less in need of a self-care pack.
Scratches is at Arcola Theatre until 11th November 2023