There’s no other play like the National Theatre of Scotland and Debbie Hannan’s production of the brutal and damning indictment of the care system, The Panopticon, on the Scottish stage right now. Adapted by Jenni Fagan from her 2012 novel of the same name, the play creates a space for the people left behind in the care system, following a remarkable teenager as she navigates what could be her final few weeks in a broken system that failed her, time and time again.
Fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks (played with fierce perfection by Anna Russell-Martin) is running out of time. Sent to a semi-secure residential unit after allegedly putting a police officer in a coma, her future hangs by a literal thread. With her 16th birthday on the horizon, and the promise of an escape from care with it, Anais’ fate is as uncertain as her mysterious and lost past.
There’s a certain irony in a building like the titular Panopticon, where the inspection house at the centre watches residents at all times, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the everyday desperation of the characters. It’s a fitting metaphor, hauntingly brought to life by Max Johns’s set design and Cat Bruce’s animations, projected onto the set by Lewis den Hertog. It twists and writhes, revealing the literal cracks in the system that so many children fall through. It pays tribute to the silent resilience of those in the care system, whilst criticising the stop gaps and protections unfit for purpose.
While the ensemble cast are strong, and Russell-Martin’s performance is as heart-breaking as it is empowering, certain elements of the show feel underdeveloped. Some scenes, such as a late-night poaching section, don’t translate well to the stage. Other incidents, meanwhile, including a gang rape and the disappearance of a resident, take place and then are barely mentioned again. Perhaps this is Fagan’s point; that these things happen within the system, and nothing is done because the people within that system are ignored or even suppressed. It’s a chilling thought.
However, for all its unrelenting energy and tragedy, The Panopticon is at its heart a hopeful play, bringing together characters who through life circumstances have found themselves in care. These voices and stories are so rarely heard on the stage, let alone the arts, which is why Fagan’s words are so remarkable. This piece has so much power and potential, and in order for this to be realised, it must be made more accessible to the people that need to see it most.