Mayfest Shorts: Opening Skinners Box- Bristol Old Vic

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Opening Skinner’s Box by Lauren Slater is a book that explores the great psychological experiments of the twentieth century from the aforementioned B. F. Skinner to Antonio Egas Moniz’s development of the lobotomy and Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. A fascinating read about the science behind the human mind and reaction. In many ways source material just ripe for theatrical exploration. It poses a number of great questions at its heart, of materialism and determinism, of the ethics of experimentation. When the great minds of Improbable are also on board it promises fireworks.

Which is why it is such a shame that the work crashes onto the stage with such a decidedly heavy thump. Playing out in far to episodic a manner, there is little theatrical imagination on display here, its structure in thrall to the books case by case form, which never allows the fertile minds of Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson to translate their own ideas to the stage. Its an adaptation that never answers why this work now, as though once the company had started work on it they realised they had little to say outside of the structures of the book. Worse the awkward staging puts one in mind of rote A Level devised work rather than one of our most creative companies, while the acting feels nervy and disjointed.

While companies that push at the form inevitably will fail sometimes what is disappointing here is that across almost all forms, content, ideas, performances it falls flat. Thank heavens then for Laura Hopkins, bendy, twisty, Cubism inspired box at its centre that puts some art into this rather drab couple of hours exploration of the human mind.


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