Opening Skinner's Box

Based on the book by Lauren Slater, adapted by Improbable
Improbable in a co-production with Northern Stage and West Yorkshire Playhouse
Northern Stage, Newcastle

The ensemble Credit: Topher McGrillis
The ensemble (with "sea slugs") Credit: Topher McGrillis
L-R: Paschale Straiton, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan, Alex Cox, Tyrone Huggins Credit: Topher McGrillis

Adapting a novel for the stage is commonplace (even if in the majority of cases it doesn’t work terribly well) but to adapt a factual book (Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box) which tells the stories of ten historically important psychological experiments is something very different—even, one might say, odd.

Some of the experiments are well-known—most notoriously Stanley Milgram’s work on reactions to authority, as well as Walter Freeman’s enthusiastic embracing of lobotomy as a psychological cure-all—and some less so. Some, I suspect, are probably totally unknown outside the field. In short, we have ten stories of potential interest, even fascination.

Directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson have chosen to use an ensemble of three men and three women dressed in suits with bow-ties. Give them all horn-rimmed spectacles and you’d have stereotypical Ivy League geeks. One has to wonder why. Is this intended in some way to colour our attitude towards them and their work? It does, for me at any rate.

The directors have also chosen to make intermittent use of physical theatre techniques: exaggerated gesture, dance-like movements, but, most of all, slow motion. Slow motion, in fact, to an excessive degree.

There’s also the occasional use of everyday objects to represent something else, most notable being sleeping-bags (or are they duvets? I'm not sure) as sea slugs. Again we have to ask, why? And if there is really a good reason, why only occasionally?

It is impossible to actually engage with any of the stories, partially because of the above but also because there is no real characterisation. There can’t be: each experiment gets about ten minutes of stage time so that a bewildering array of people is paraded before us and we can’t latch on to any one in particular before they’re gone.

There is one character who remains throughout, Lauren Slater herself, but she simply says such things as “I said…” and “I did…” And let’s face it, that’s what she’s there for. She’s a link, not an individual to whom we can relate on an emotional level.

I did like the set—a wire-frame box which can be distorted in various ways—which represents the box B F Skinner is supposed to have kept his daughter in as part of researches in behaviourism.

A whistle-stop tour through ten psychological experiments is never going to offer deep insights into the human psyche, nor does the style Improbable has chosen for this piece involve or excite the audience. Opening Skinner's Box is quite interesting, albeit superficial, in terms of its subject and mildly entertaining. More matter here for a television documentary series than for the stage, I fear.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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