The Scar Test – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Hannah Khalil
Director: Sara Joyce
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

“I can’t believe this is England” the characters proclaim in Hannah Khalil’s new play The Scar Test,set in an immigration holding centre, a place where women who have committed no crimes are held for months while their cases are heard. Often, they have escaped persecution in another country and dreamed of the safety Britain can offer, but as Khalil’s inmates discover the price of freedom is detention.

tell-us-block_editedThe Scar Test takes the audience through the procedure of arriving and engaging in life at the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, where they are processed at every turn, first by the guards who strip them of their personal belongings and put them in uniforms; then by the doctor who rushes through the check-up, trying to get through the ever-expanding waiting room; and finally, by the duty solicitor who assess each case on its merits. In the meantime, all the women can do is wait, and wait and wait.

The play is well researched, based on interviews with former inmates of Yarl’s Wood, and Khalil has taken pains to emphasise the removal of humanity, choice and opportunity from a huge range of women only there because they need protection. In demonstrating the faceless management of what is essentially a prison, and its constant surveillance, Khalil successfully conveys a message of injustice.

Yet, the events of the play, emotive as they could be, never quite inflame its audience, and while it does follow a couple of characters in detailed, The Scar Test is largely a series of quick impressions rather than an intimate portrait. In just 75-minutes, there are 16 separate scenes that jump around between its 21 characters who pointedly are never named. We do get to hear some of the backstories which start to add texture but more time on these would help to create greater empathy for what these women are going through.

There are some cleverly managed moments including a sense of the brutal experience of the ‘Tired Lady,’ whose story anchors the play, and as she attempts to describe her trauma to the solicitor, Jo Walker’s sound effects merge stomping boots with screams, gunshots and planes to imply military carnage, bathed in red light designed by Zoe Spurr. It’s a poignant moment and more innovative approaches like this could add a greater sense of drama.

It is an ensemble piece with five actors playing all the, largely well distinguished, roles among them. Janet Etuk is particularly notable as a detainee born in Britain but never registered who tries to help the newcomers to distract from the idiocy of her situation. Rebecca Omogbehin’s ‘Tired Lady’ conveys the shock of where she’s ended up while still being unable to process what’s happened to her. There are good supporting roles for Nadia Nadif, Shazia Nicholls and Lucy Sheen, but little opportunity for them to all delve beneath the surface.

The Scar Test is a jumble of straightforwardly dramatic sense that gives a high-level impression of the centre, and more abstract sections where characters struggle within giant jumpers that add very little to the overall effect. While there is a lot to say and the audience comes away understanding more about the inhumanity of places like Yarl’s Wood, the political angle is not quite ferocious enough; when the cast concludes with the line “I can’t believe this is England” the audience should go home not just feeling informed, but also ashamed.

Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Rob O’Kelly

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The Reviews Hub Score

Not quite ferocious enough

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