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Opening Skinner's Box (Northern Stage)

Improbable adapt Lauren Slater's book to explore controversial, psychological experiments of the last century

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Opening Skinner's Box
(© Topher McGrillis)

Psychology isn't interested in brains, but behaviour - why we act as we do. For all our free will and our self-awareness, human beings are subject to animal instincts, reflex responses and pack mentalities. We are not entirely in control of our actions.

Adapted from Lauren Slater's book of the same name, Opening Skinner's Box presents a survey of key, and often controversial, psychological experiments of the last century - discoveries that helped us understand ourselves. From Stanley Milgram's famous study of obedience, in which subjects dished out electric shocks to order, to John Darley and Bibb Latané's demonstrations of the bystander effect, the piece rattles through a series of scientific vignettes, providing historical context, biographical information and real-world applications around the experiments themselves.

A chorus of six actors in dickie bows and retro suits step into Laura Hopkins' elastic white cube - at once, a theoretical thinkspace and a glass cage - to play scientists and subjects, lab rats and lobotomy patients. It's like a series of moving diagrams: a theatrical textbook.

B. F. Skinner himself is a controversial figure, whose findings about behavourial conditioning, while influential, have dangerous implications. Falsely rumoured to have experimented on his daughter, he found that humans can be trained into compulsion, most strongly by random reward.

There are a whole heap of ideas swirling beneath the surface of Phelim McDermot and Lee Simpson's staging: questions of determinism and materialism; the ethics of experimentation, either on animals or humans; and the conundrum of self-consciousness - how to think about the way we think; how to test subjects that know they're test subjects. It's a crash course in the basics, or more accurately the juiciest bits, of psychology.

And yet, why put that onstage? Improbable haven't translated Slater's book into theatre so much as air-lifted it onto the stage. Too much of the action is blandly illustrative; too much of the text has been copied and pasted. The actors are yet to find their feet, and, as such, it lacks a sense of play - uncharacteristically for the impish Improbable. It should warm up in front of audiences.

However, an edit wouldn't go amiss, to pull disparate material together. There's a strong argument just beneath the surface, still waiting to be drawn out. Join the dots, and this might yet pick at our continued collusion in capitalism.

If Skinner showed the addictiveness of random reward - and what's capitalism if not a system that rewards a lucky few - other psychologists explain our inability to change course. We follow orders and we follow crowds. We cling to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, and create false memories based on suggestion. Why don't we change? Why don't we buck a broken system that works against so many of us? Psychology suggests we can't.

Opening Skinner's Box runs at Northern Stage until 30 April, then at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 5 to 14 May and Bristol Old Vic as part of Mayfest from 20 to 21 May.

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