The Panopticon

I well remember when Jenni Fagan’s explosive debut, The Panopticon, first appeared in 2013. Asked to review it, I unusually read the novel in one-sitting, consumed by not just Fagan’s brilliantly evocative prose but the depth and strength of her central character, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks, who has spent all her life in the Scottish care system—a system she refuses to either let define her as a person, or grind her down.

Anna Russell-Martin holds our attention from the start as Anais.

Fagan has since published both a second novel (2016’s The Sunlight Pilgrims) and a poetry collection, but has returned to The Panopticon by adapting her own novel for this production by the National Theatre of Scotland. The result is, as literary adaptations go, a powerful, gripping and at times almost visually overwhelming experience, making particularly nightmarish use of Lewis den Hertog's video projections on Max Johns’ triangular-columned set. Yet it also highlights an imbalance that seemed far less significant in the original book: this is an ensemble production with an almost overwhelming star performer in its midst.

Anna Russell-Martin holds our attention from the start as Anais, the girl who survives as much by telling stories to herself: not least her “birthday game”, imagining herself a different life right from a different birth. Sooner or later, though, the reality of her actual situation impinges, explained in terms of “The Experiment” being conducted by mysterious, black suited men in bowler hats. They watch her, constantly, or so she believes, trying “to see how much the human spirit can endure before it breaks”. The result is that she neither trusts anyone around her or gives ground when challenged.

This has got her into trouble, of course; we meet her with just eight weeks before she’s old enough to leave care forever, but she’s on her last chance. Staff member Angus (Paul Tinto) – ex-biker gang, ex-soldier – wants to ensure she doesn’t go straight into adult jail, but the odds appear stacked against her, in part because of an alleged connection to an assault on a female police officer which left her in a coma. We’re not even sure whether or not Anais actually did it, given the two had “history” and she refuses to say either way.

Angus’s furious defence of Anais in court not-withstanding, there are few occasions when the ensemble cast circling around Russell-Martin’s central performance have anything like her depth or strength; their roles are necessarily less detailed and nuanced, although it’s fair to say that the range of characters remains impressive. Overall, however, you’ll leave the theatre thinking, perhaps rightly, of Anais: the young woman who, despite everything, genuinely convinces us that she’s a good person.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Royal Lyceum Theatre

Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti

★★
Traverse Theatre

W*nk Buddies

★★★
Traverse Theatre

Pride Plays

★★★★
Multiple Venues

Oor Wullie

★★★★
Oran Mor / Traverse Theatre

Fly Me To The Moon

★★★★
Platform / Traverse Theatre

The Panopticon

★★★★

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £600,000 to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

Performances

Location

The Blurb

A whip-smart counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts. 15 year old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce. She has also been let down by about every adult she has ever met. Sitting in the back of a police car she is taken to the Panopticon, a young offenders institution. Inside the circular, controlling Panopticon the residents develop intense bonds. All have experienced the failings of the care system, Anais refuses to be defined by it. Brought for the first time to the stage, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is a visceral, bloody and brutal testament to life and friendship. 

Most Popular See More

The Phantom of the Opera

From £31.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Life of Pi

From £19.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Everybody's Talking About Jamie

From £25.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Only Fools and Horses - The Musical

From £19.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Book of Mormon

From £20.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Matilda the Musical

From £25.00

More Info

Find Tickets