Opening Skinner’s Box @ Bristol Old Vic (Mayest 2016) Review

‘How do we learn? Why do we believe in the unbelievable? Why do we keep doing things that hurt us?’ These are, among others, just a few of the questions which Improbable Theatre Company attempt to tackle in their Mayfest entry, Opening Skinner’s Box. Based upon the popular and controversial book by Lauren Slater, the play runs through ten of the most influential psychological experiments of the 20th century. It tackles topics of drug addiction, relationships, memory, obedience, belief, among several others.

Opening Skinner's Box

Quite a task for a two hour play, you might think. But despite this, it never feels rushed or overly abridged. It is the real life implications, and the reasoning behind them that seem of greatest importance in the show. This is largely brought home to us in the form of Lauren Slater, who makes an appearance in the production herself along with her husband, and fulfils the role of a proxy for the audience; through we explore the practical and ethical implications in the experiments.  There are a number of such devices that prevent the show becoming simply an abbreviated lecture series. The set is of particular interest, being a stretched, malleable structure of cord delineating a ‘Skinner box’ that creates a space within a space in which a number of the experiments are acted out with innovative and entertaining sections of physical theatre.

If I had one criticism of the piece, it would, tentatively be of the performances themselves.  I say tentatively, because they are by no means bad; the cast are clearly very capable, making sense of the language and the story, and delivering it in a reasonably engaging manner. But for a play with so many characters, and the variability of the experiments themselves, the majority of the piece hums along at a very similar pace, with one character blending fairly nondescriptly into the next. There is also at times a curious disconnectedness between performer and subject material, like a competent teacher who’s covered the same subject countless times before and is well trained in ‘engaging a classroom’. This is by no means ubiquitous; the powerful finale being a case in point with real emotional clout. These moments are hardly pervasive however, and the production as a whole gives off the impression of a mild uncertainty in its own identity, displaying qualities of both play and lecture series, but not entirely comfortable with either.

Nonetheless, this merely has the effect of turning a potentially excellent production into a very good one. It is faced with the daunting task of compressing 10 fairly complex psychological investigations into a two hour show, and succeeds admirably. The main points are brought out efficiently and clearly, and the change we perceive in the onstage participants feels applicable and personal to daily life. Overall, a very important show handled well. 4/5

Review written by James Adams.

Opening Skinner’s Box was shown at the Bristol Old Vic from Friday 20th to Saturday 21st May 2016 as part of this year’s Mayfest. For more information on this year’s festival, visit here…

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