SCORCHED EARTH: Audience Feedback

Finally, here’s a selection of the generous and detailed feedback provided by the audiences of our two work-in-progress performances, at the Soho Theatre and Southwark Playhouse. We’d like to thank everyone who took the time to discuss their thoughts in the post-show feedback sessions, or sent us their thoughts in writing afterwards; these are incredibly helpful and encouraging to the development of the work in future!

FEEDBACK on Work-in-Progress Performances of SCORCHED EARTH (Heroin Project)

From: Fiona Moorhead, Artistic Co-Ordinator, Globe Theatre
Subject: RE: Scorched Earth

“Apologies for not having got back to you before now, I enjoyed seeing the work you’ve done on Scorched Earth.   As always with Che’s work, it was big and ballsy and really interesting subject matter and I love the crossing of the ages and snap-shots of different times and stories.  Many congratulations on getting it all together.

I liked the music; I’d like more music. The intimate smaller scenes are really beautifully nuanced and I really liked when it came down to a two hander like that and I think that they work well in comparison to the big sprawling scenes.

From: Lara Stavrinou, Arts Council 
Subject: RE: Invitation – Scorched Earth

There was some incredibly impressive work for a play still in its developing stages and it looks like you have plenty of content to work with. It was encouraging to see the space so full and please do to keep inviting us to any work you do in the future.

From: Susie Safavi, Southwark Playhouse
Subject: RE: Thank you

Total pleasure, I really enjoyed it and it is always a lovely change to pop out of the office and into the theatre during the day!

Re: the reading- I generally thought the more intimate conversations were the most polished and interesting. E.g. between your character and the heroin addict Mum and between two of the male characters that I can’t remember the names of!

I liked how it skipped across time (with the Chinese Emperor character) and am quite interested to see how that might work within the final script. Also, thought the professor guy was really funny (can’t remember his name, long coat!) and really helped pull all the little scenes together.

I suppose I did wonder how the songs might integrate into a play that is so serious but as there is so much funny dialogue I can definitely see it working. Do keep me posted on whether it has a future life or not.

P1190579From: Sarah Ogley 
Subject: Scorched Earth

“As promised some reflections on your work in progress performance of Scorched Earth.

Firstly, I really enjoyed all the performances and was absolutely gripped by the story telling. I don’t know Che’s work but am determined to remedy that – I loved his writing and use of language. I thought the use of comedy worked particularly well – some scenes are hard to watch and the release that laughter brings is very welcome…. if a little disconcerting.

I thought that all the characters were well rounded – although as we didn’t see all the scenes it is difficult to get a true sense of all of them and this made some seem more developed than others. The range of people and backgrounds challenged stereotypical notions of drug addicts and I felt the balance of happy endings to tragic endings accurately mirrored real life.

I loved the character of the German scientist and thought that his narrator role worked very well. His energetic, engaging sometimes appalling dialogue really drove the pace of the piece.

Vicky’s story seemed one of the most developed and was very moving. I thought the mother and daughter scene was excrutiating, compelling and moving. You were great!

Other characters that stood out for me were Mike and Billie.

As I said at the time understanding the “positives” of heroin – the incredible highs, the extremes of emotion, the joy of the hit – was very powerful in helping to communicate what is a very complicated multi layered issue. This made the scenes where the long term effects were evident more understandable.

I wasn’t worried (unlike some audience members) about making explicit links from the past to the present – I thought it was pretty self evident and I liked having to work to make the links and ask myself what we can learn from history and indeed what we consistently fail to learn.

I really liked the historical scenes – so much I didn’t know explained in a very accessible way.

I know it was a necessity because of the stage of your work but I loved the simple staging, everything was stripped away allowing the characters to take centre stage.

I thought “hunger” was great – it made you experience the piece on a visceral level.

I loved the energy of the whole thing, quick transitions between scenes, lovely ensemble work and really effective changes of pace from frenetic activity to still highly emotional scenes.

I hope this stream of consciousness is of some use!!

Many many congratulations – what an achievement. I can’t wait to see the finished version and wish you all every success with it.

P1190649From: Katy Federman, Actress

I just wanted to make contact after having seen the preview of Scorched Earth on Tuesday to say how much I enjoyed the performance.  Sadly I wasn’t able to stay for the feedback session after which is a shame as I would have been very interested to see what other people thought.  I am in the process of completing the feedback forms however.  Congratulations on what I think was clearly a well received preview and the best of luck with all future plans for the production.”
From: Iain Christie, Actor

I’m just e-mailing to say how much I enjoyed the work in progress performance of Scorched Earth at the Soho Theatre on Tuesday. I hope it went well again yesterday and that you got useful feedback from both performances.

I have few specific suggestions as to how it could be improved.  The writing was very powerful and Simon, Fraser and Victoria were exceptional.  I was particularly moved by the scenes around Vicky’s addiction and the loss her daughter.  Her description of the relationship with the father (also an addict) was spot on: “His lack fed into my lack and we both lacked” To me that encapsulates what addiction is all about. The fact the reunion scene did not turn out as we might have hoped was both shocking and perfectly natural. And the need for Vicky to have yet another hit despite feeling proud of herself for confronting her demons conveyed the relentlessness of the yearning for something more.

I learned a lot about the history of the heroin trade.  I had no idea that one individual claimed “ownership” of the chemical process for creating it. I knew more about the involvement of the East India Company and thought the historic scenes with all their irony of alcohol versus drugs, women as monarchs, gender roles and so on, were very clever and funny. All the story lines were clear for me and I wouldn’t have thought it needed much more to develop it into a full length play.  

I know which side of the line I stand on in answer to the final poser: whether there is something wrong with heroin or something wrong with people, but it was a provocative and moving piece. Well done.”

P1200557From: Susanne MacGregor, Professor of Social Policy, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

I very much enjoyed the performance yesterday. Thank you very much.

Here are a few comments.

 The acting overall was excellent.

The idea of having continuity through a link actor Simon Kunz worked very well.

I particularly liked the fellowship scene which captured the rituals very well and the guy who did not fit in was funny.

I liked the portrait of the homeless – this showed understanding and familiarity with the scene. It showed camaraderie well and also the background fear of the police through use of sirens.

The description of the pleasure of a ‘hit’ was very well written and absolutely spot on – explaining why people do this to themselves.

The portrait of the mother losing her child was good demonstrating the dilemmas re whose needs should be put first – mother or child eg when children taken into care. Child’s response very good too.

Overall the play shows how the drug problem is shaped by its historical context and the sub cultures it appears in. It showed the role of suppliers very well and entry of gangs into provision. I liked the Chinese scenes – Captain Elliott and mandarin encounter good – I am currently reading River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh which deals with this period – might be worth dipping into if you have not already done so. Captain Elliott appears in this novel too.

The length of all scenes seem right to me. The key characters I liked were all those played by Simon Kunz; Aema and Billie Carleton – wonderful actor here – very distinctive appearance. Reggie Deveuille was well portrayed. Vicky and Mike also good.

I know quite a bit about this subject but the 1920s is a period I don’t know as well so I found this enlightening and the other periods seemed right to me.

One problem is that although you try to focus on heroin, it is almost impossible to discuss heroin without considering other substances – and you do talk about opium and cocaine/crack cocaine in places. So I am not sure that the focus on the distinctive features of heroin is maintained. I think you do need to focus a bit more on the specific role of injecting – when needles enter in all changes some people think – and it is not just overdoses which kill people but HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

But really good and lively and educational without being too heavy.

P1190861From: Roger Hyams, Writer

“Thank you for the work-in-progress performance today.  Here’s the feedback form, by email.

Q.  What parts of the performance did you like and why?

I thought the piece was acted with commitment and elegance, the direction lucid.  Confident, sometimes grand-scale writing.  The strongest sequences, for me, were those which had to do with the contemporary story.  Here the performances were nuanced and the scenes drew me in.  This was partly because of the continuity of the story (while it was episodic, there was a real strength to the ellipses – for example the discovery that one of the protagonists had died).  The NA meeting and the confrontation between Vicky and her daughter were really affecting.

Q.  What parts do you feel could be improved?

While I enjoyed the performances and dazzle of the historical sequences, especially the witty work by Simon Kunz, they seemed rather more illustrative, and the writing moved into evocative rather than immediate poetry.  I didn’t really feel that the character of Dreser was an effective guide through the history of heroin.  I was interested to know how the musical interludes will be developed.

Q.  What did you think about the length of the scenes shown?  What characters stood out for you?  Were the storylines clear (bearing in mind this was a snippet of the whole play)?

Generally I felt that scenes were a little overstretched, though that may be to do with inevitable caution in performances of this kind – and the fact that this was only an extract.  Hard to get a sense of continuity and economy in those circumstances.  The characters that stood out for me were Vicky, Mike and – though I’m not quite convinced he’s a strong enough narrator yet – Dreser.  The storylines were clear.

Q.  Do you think the play contributed to your understanding of the history and effects of heroin?

The material that had to do with the divvying of territory between Brilliant Chang and Edgar Manning was new to me, but to be honest the rest was quite familiar.  But I don’t think that’s necessarily a criticism.

I hope all that’s of some use.

Thank you very much for inviting me.  I’ll look forward to hearing more of the project.”

P1190899From: Sara Templeman, Actress

“I attended the work in progress yesterday at Soho Theatre. I had to rush off to a meeting but here is my feedback

I really enjoyed the musicality of the show with the underlying LIVE piano -a  really nice touch and also Loved the chanting moment at the opening and finale. I wanted to see more moments like this. Almost a more surreal way of showing the effects of the drugs. I felt the feeling and effects of the drug was lacking – not to glamourise the drug taking but to give an honest and affecting portrayal of the feelings and effects of the drug would have been very engaging to watch. Also would have added dimensions in feeling uncomfortable which is a strong feeling people have when they encounter heroin addicts and feel that way towards the drug also. When I hear the word heroin I instantly feel anxious and uncomfortable. Not in a naive way but just a gut feeling about it – These would be good feelings to explore I think.

The character of Vicky stood out – a very striking and realistic performance showing a modern day portrayal of the drug.

I also enjoyed the Jamaican character. That whole section of the early part of the century with the actress and the gangsters I really connected with. All the performers stood out in this moment and gave an insight into the beginnings of the enjoyment of drugs and decadence/parties of that period (quite bright young things but a bit more gritty) and also using drugs as a method of trying to block out what was going on around them with world wars and massive global changes. I wanted this part of the history of the drug to be explored more.

Also the inventor/narrator character was great – all of the moments this actor were in were very strong but this particular character stood out for me.

I didn’t enjoy the chinese emporer scene as I didn’t quite understand the context and also the moment on the boat was confusing too. that said, i think this is an important factor in the history as it did pop up twice so this needs work in making it clearer for the audience.

The play did give me a brief and quick understanding of the history of the drug but wanted more info in each section as moments were confusing – probably just as it was a work in progress though!!

I wanted to see more of the enjoyment of the drug as well as the very serious after effects. Not glamourising but understanding why people want to feel that way and HOW it feels as well as why it is so addictive.

Quite wanted the scenes to be more snappy as a few dragged on and felt overloaded with information and big words – think there are more interesting ways to express the topics – more use of music/movement perhaps.

This is a bit disjointed but hope it makes sense. Do let me know if anything isnt clear!!!

Thank you for inviting me along and I really look forward to seeing the outcome of the final piece!!!”

P1190643From: Virginia Berridge, Professor of History, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

I enjoyed the production today at the Soho theatre.The acting and writing was great.

You asked for feedback

1. The production tended to focus only on problems- one would not know that heroin is a major painkiller in medicine. Or that some people take it recreationally and occasionally without problem.

2. The opium war scenes-opium wasn’t ‘ foisted’ on the Chinese by the British although it has suited Chinese interests to say so. There was widespread use of opium in China before then and it was an indigenous medicine. See Dikotter’s book on narcotic use in China.

3. Billie Carleton, Chang and Manning don’t fit together time wise- guess that was artistic licence. She did not take heroin-she was an opium smoker. Heroin comes into the ‘scene’  more in the 1930s. She died of a veronal overdose. There are ‘society’ heroin addicts of the ’30s you could use.

4. If you wanted an international angle then a relevant one might be international control and US dominance-they tried to get heroin banned in the UK in the 1950s but UK doctors opposed that. Were also involved(CIA) in the  opium trade in Vietnam in the 60s for political reasons. Might be more relevant to heroin than the opium wars.”

P1200690From: Jenny Dee, Managing Director, Caught in the Act; Member of the Drug Education Practitioners Forum

It was really interesting to see, it wasn’t too far from the kind of work we do actually. The minimalist style might have been more because it was a scratch, but I really liked it. There was a lot to enjoy, lots of funny jokes and character work. The play bounced between the history of Drugs/Heroin and modern day issues. I learned a lot from it!

The actors were all a little bit “clean” to really believe they were heroin users, but not so much that it got in the way of the stories. I did think at times that the modern scenes were lacking a “Heroin feels really good” bit. All the users were hopeless addicts unable to keep a job and living rough. This is probably true of Heroin more than any other drug, but it set my “Just Say No”/abstinence only buzzer off. I enjoyed the “there’s nothing wrong with Heroin. There’s something wrong with people”.”