The Scar Test

Hannah Khalil
Untold Theatre
Soho Theatre

The Scar Test Credit: William Henry Scott
The Scar Test Credit: William Henry Scott

There have been numerous reports and allegations about the mistreatment of foreign nationals being held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre prior to their deportation. Even the National Audit Office has listed a whole series of failures.

Hannah Khalil’s play The Scar Test has been developed from interviews with the women detainees. It shows us the disturbing experience of their arrival, the strip searches, the insensitive interviews, and the difficulties the women have in securing healthcare or adequate legal support. A lack of translators causes constant communication problems between staff and detainees.

Many of the women are bewildered and frightened. The show is particularly effective in its account of the woman referred to in the text as the Tired Lady (Rebecca Omogbehin) who is clearly still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The only support the staff seem to have in mind for her is solitary confinement and greater surveillance.

We never hear exactly what happened to her. Instead, when she begins to tell a solicitor, the lights dim and there is an intense jumble of sounds that include gunshots, feet pounding and male grunting. Her mouth forms into a terrifying scream.

The engaging cast of five give us many strong moments in this short play. They include the gentle dialogue between the Cool Lady (Janet Etuk) who though born in the UK has never been registered and the Tired Lady.

There are also scenes that work mainly at a visually striking level such as the strange movement of the entire cast wearing massive jumpers. Those giant jumpers return to the play on a number of occasions.

However the show also has weaknesses. We know from reports that some guards are brutal, but the show depicts all the guards as unreal symbols of brutality which distracts from the naturalism of the play.

Some scenes just don’t work. In one, the women supposedly hold a democratic forum to decide which of them should be first to see the doctor. It may have been a device to allow us to hear their ailments but it seems very crude and awkward.

Occasionally, the imaginative and steady hand of the director Sara Joyce falters in the delivery of the text. Before the show, I was intrigued by the words of Hannah Khalil’s opening character, a female guard in a club answering questions from an unseen stranger about her scar. The scene is moody and unsettling. It certainly grabbed my attention.

Unfortunately, the actual performance gave me someone whose voice and movements were so odd and distracting the scene had no tension and little purpose.

I say these things because the play is a good way to being a very strong and important play that ought to be seen by many people.

Yarl’s Wood should be shut down. Its shocking treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in the world is an outrage. The Scar Test is a fitting testimony to some of the reasons that closure should happen soon.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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