Flying too near the sun: Scorch. A Fringe review

Julie Niuboi Ferguson in Scorch, Blarney/ Bustle & Beast. Photo by Liam Mackenzie.

By Liz Nicholls,

Scorch (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

This absorbing, moving little solo play, by the Irish writer Stacey Gregg, was inspired by a real U.K. court case in which a teenager was found guilty of “gender fraud” for starting a sexual relationship with a girl who thought she was a boy. And went to jail.

In Brenley Charkow’s production, a collaboration between Blarney Productions and Bustle & Beast, the stage is inhabited by a semi-circle of three life-sized translucent plastic people, lit from within. There are two empty chairs, and we’re there to complete the LBGTQ support circle. And there’s Kes.

We meet Kes (played by the trans non-binary performance artist Julie Niuboi Ferguson) as a funny, lively eight-year-old, preferring vests to dresses, trying to pee standing up like her bro. And she — who’s starting to feel like it’s pretending to even use that pronoun — takes us into the mind of Kes at 12, 13, 14. They’re the kid who’s disconcerted to wake up with boobs (“nobody asked me! Arghh, Alien!”), always choosing “dude” avatars in video games, having the hots for Ryan Gosling, in the more particular sense of wanting to be him.

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The online world, where “you can be whoever you want … “dude or mushroom,” is a liberation from the “real” world of assigned identity. “Everyone needs somewhere to live in capitals! says Kes. And that’s where Kes meets Jules, and a relationship starts: texting, then Skype, then a meeting, then more, and more.

The exhilaration of first love is captured, compellingly, in Ferguson’s performance. And then bewilderment and heartbreak, as the world, and the law, crash in, with terms like “sexual assault but penetration” and “fraud.” And the helping profession chips in “gender dysfunctional.”

True, Kes has never told Jules they’re not a boy. But for Kes, there’s a beautiful truth at work. “Jules said I lied to her. But I don’t think I did…. I’m not pretending.”

Scorch is all about gender identity, mixed signals, teenage first love. It’s a tribute to the life force, the against-the-odds something that’s unquenchable inside that’s all about joy. As Ferguson conveys, there’s a certain innocence about Kes, and a capacity for happiness in a hard world that cannot be suppressed. And at moments of extremity, they break into a wild, unclassifiable dance. 

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