DramaNorth East & YorkshirePerformance ArtReview

Opening Skinner’s Box – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Based on the book by Lauren Slater

Director: Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson

Reviewer: Stephen Brennan

Improbable Theatre’s Opening Skinner’s Box is described as “a whistle-stop tour of the scientific quest to make sense of what we are and who we are,” and with such ambitious aims, the piece could very easily have drowned under the weight of philosophical and psychological deliberations. However, thanks to simple but effective staging, smart, slick direction and an excellent ensemble performance Opening Skinner’s Box is a remarkable piece of theatre that tackles the big questions in an engaging and entertaining way.

Based on Lauren Slater’s book of the same name, the piece investigates ten famous (and infamous) psychological experiments that have shaped the scientific understanding of what it means to be human. Each experiment and the psychologist responsible is framed by how it impacts Lauren’s life; her yearning to understand the human condition is central to the piece and brings a humanity that stops the performance becoming an exercise in exposition. Kate Maravan does an excellent job portraying Lauren as both passionate idealist and naive investigator whose attempts to prove herself do not always make her an endearing protagonist.

The strength of Opening Skinner’s Box though, is not from one performer, but from the ensemble as a whole. Dressed in matching tweed suits and bow ties, the six-strong cast work as a seamless team throughout, presenting each experiment through an array of tightly choreographed physical theatre routines. Their portrayals of the psychologists are, if anything, underplayed- the focus being firmly on the experiments they performed and why, rather than on broad character studies.

The large white box that is central to Laura Hopkins’ stage design is beautifully simple and creates a striking image of psychologists being trapped within their own understanding. That the discussions on the ethics and validity of the psychologists’ work only take place outside this box, is a smart directorial decision and serves to fuel a repeated question over whether these experiments can really be viewed in isolation. In fact, the direction throughout is superb, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson working with the ensemble to create some striking and visceral imagery.

Opening Skinner’s Box is a fantastic piece of theatre. It succeeds in deconstructing the science of psychology and examining what it is that makes us human. That it manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining at once is a testament to the excellent cast and the slick, uncomplicated direction and production. It is a piece of theatre that will stay with you long after you’ve left the auditorium.

Runs until 14 May 2016 | Image:Topher McGrillis

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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