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The Panopticon review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘a striking performance’

Anna Russell-Martin in The Panopticon at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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There’s great ambition in Jenni Fagan’s adaptation of her acclaimed 2012 novel, about a young woman growing up in the care system, for the National Theatre of Scotland.

A technically complex staging performed by a nine-person ensemble, The Panopticon reflects Fagan’s own experience of growing up in care. Like the central character Anais (Anna Russell-Martin), the author experienced more than 30 care home moves.

Anais ends up in the Panopticon, an old Victorian institution with sinister, decommissioned shackling devices behind its locked doors.

Debbie Hannan’s production features strong performances throughout. Gail Watson, as Anais’ coarse dominatrix adoptive auntie, and Paul Tinto, as an emotionally over-invested care worker, are particularly good. But it’s Russell-Martin, on stage for the whole production, who holds this complex character piece together.

She brings a fierce non-conformity and a vibrant intellectual curiosity to Anais as the 15-year-old character comes of age. Anais endures punishing emotional and physical suffering, including the suicide of friends and a grim episode of sexual violence. She develops the paranoid fantasy/coping mechanism that she’s being watched all the time by a mysterious force known as ‘the experiment’ (represented by Lewis den Hertog’s sinister video projections).

Designer Max Johns’ versatile set – an arc of nine revolving, two-tier cells – reinforces this feeling of being viewed at all times: a by-product of the care system’s institutional surveillance, and a wider metaphor for the forms of interaction we all submit to now.

If at times the piece feels overstuffed, Russell-Martin’s performance ensures it remains resonant.

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Jenni Fagan’s stage adaptation of her novel about life in care features a striking central performance