The Scar Test
5 July 2017
The promotional material for Untold Arts’ The Scar Test describes it as ‘a snapshot of life inside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre’. Located in Bedfordshire, the detention centre has received a not insignificant amount of criticism in recent years with allegations of racism, abuse and violence within. Its population, by a large majority, is female, and The Scar Test gives a glimpse into their story. Based on verbatim interviews, The Scar Test pulls no punches in its blunt and brutal narrative, demonstrating the total lack of privacy or empathy that those detained have suffered. Their lives are strictly regulated, and one wrong word could ruin their chances of asylum and send them back to whatever horrible circumstances they were fleeing.
The five-strong all female cast are all incredibly strong performers, with Shazia Nicholls and Rebecca Omogbehin as particular stand outs. We never learn anyone’s names, with the script simply distinguishing them as ‘Strong Lady’ and ‘Cool Woman’ among others. Each performer takes on multiple roles, from detainees to guards and visitors to the centre.
The piece shoots along at a fast pace, with the performers switching characters by quickly adding a piece of clothing or altering their posture and bearing to create clear, distinct identities. The performance space is kept clear and basic too, with a few chairs and a folding bed moved on and off by the performers to create each scene. Sara Joyce’s direction uses the space highly effectively, and even with the small cast it never feels empty. In fact, even with the cast of five the feeling of overcrowding and lack of personal space is convincingly portrayed.
Audio recordings are used sparingly, but to amazing effect. A scene in which Omogbehin’s character recounts her reasons for coming to England results in one of the most shocking images of the play. We’re not told the story through words, but we hear it, every gunshot and agonised scream, as the character stands motionless, mouth agape and body tense with fear. It’s a strong and very affecting moment that gives a terrifying glimpse into her past.
The titular theme of scars comes up more than once, as multiple characters discuss their own. It would have been interesting to see this concept bought full circle towards the end of the play, bookending the first scene in which a security worker on a night out insists that there’s nothing sinister behind her scar. The lack of privacy for female detainees, particularly in the presence of male guards is a concept often revisited, with the women attempting to change clothes under the cover of oversized jumpers. This evolves into a kind of undignified dance, punctuated by the sounds of effort as they wiggle and gyrate to keep themselves covered.
This is a piece that could benefit from and can afford to be longer – at just over an hour long it feels as if it’s barely scratched the surface of the many stories of Yarl’s Wood. Despite the powerful performances, the writing feels a little unfinished, more like a work in progress that a completed play. However, as it stands The Scar Test is a striking piece, with deeply unsettling moments that will remain with the audience for a long time afterwards. As a piece of new writing it is well worth experiencing.
Until 22 July 2017