Nel lives inside her own head and that’s the way she likes it. She’s a bit like Amelie (from the film) in the sense that she’s solitary, sensory and wistful. But instead of feeling stones inside her pocket, Nel’s big sensual hang-up is with sound. Sound is what makes Nel tick (and click, and whizz, and bang.) She’s a foley artist, which means she creates sound effects for film.
The use and exploration of foley throughout is both fascinating and effective; not only do you learn a lot about how sound effects are made (a hot water bottle used for car tyres screeching, for example) but the foley also becomes incorporated into the story-telling, along with songs, puppetry, physicality and object manipulation. The strength of Scratchworks as a company is in their ability to draw disciplines together, to employ all their talents to tell the story as best they can.
In the story itself Nel lives alone aside from some fish and a freakish cat. She works at the studio in the day and in the evenings she does nothing. She doesn’t have any friends. She doesn’t have any interests, outside of foley. She doesn’t really have any social skills. But despite this – she assures her persistent aunt – she’s happy. We see the things that make Nel happy – her bursts of imagination, her art and her memories. But we’re also shown the things which make her deeply unhappy – the idea of socialising, awkward conversation, and in particular, a big speech which she’ll have to make at an annual foley convention.
After a series of unfortunate happenings, Nel decides to take in a film – and it’s here at the film club she finds a voice – or rather, borrows it from the voices and opinions of other people. She completely reinvents herself; she dresses well, she acts with confidence. She pretends for a while to be an extrovert, though of course, this doesn’t actually make her any happier.
Keen gives a highly sensitive and often painfully awkward performance as Nel. And the other three women who make up the company are equally effective; employing singing, physicality, ukuleles and hot water bottles to portray a multitude of characters. These range from Hannah Kamen’s overbearing Aunt Flora, to Alice Higgson as Nel’s obnoxious colleague. Laura Doble stands out as Bea – a writer to whom Nel pretends she’s a hotshot film producer, with some very funny consequences.
Nel is a beautiful and poignant piece about what it means to be yourself, but also it’s about how the world treats introverts, and anybody different, and the importance of having friends (it’s about a lot of things, now I think of it). It’s also a fantastic and lively piece of family theatre which never preaches or condescends, but tells a great story and is entertaining throughout. This is a must-see for anyone who knows anyone who’s shy.