The Panopticon at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Anna Russell-Martin is a true champion. For not only does she put in a stonking good performance as a new kind of heroine, she has also been playing this, at times, violent role with her right arm in plaster after an earlier injury.

Russell-Martin is Anais, a 15-year-old serial offender who has been let down by adults throughout her whole life. Tagged and covered in blood, she finds herself in a panopticon, a unit for chronic young offenders where the cells surround a central well from which the inmates can be observed at all times.

Anais suspects everyone in authority, regards herself as part of an experiment, and fights against the system with a shed load of attitude, powerfully executed by Russell-Martin, who also shows Anais’s vulnerable side as she forms bonds with her fellow prisoners to such an extent that when one of them commits suicide she howls like an animal, completely distraught; a heart rending performance.

The largely young and versatile members of the company play a variety of colourful characters: Kyle Gardiner, making his National Theatre of Scotland debut, alternates between being a childlike offender complete with Teddy bear to laying down the law as a policeman; Laura Lovemore’s characters include a lesbian lover, a priest and a police officer, while Gail Watson’s main role is as a social worker but she also packs a punch as a TV news reporter, sex worker and the chairman of a children’s panel meeting.

Max Johns’ set, a semi-circular wall which opens to reveal individual cells, is slick and imaginative, while Mark Melville’s sound and Lewis den Hertog’s video backdrops literally blow your mind. The actors don’t hold back, either, especially when they are showing their characters’ anger and frustration at ‘the system’, which is often and quite harrowing, and yet there is also a good balance of humour.                                                          
One of the most moving performances comes from Paul Tinto as Anais’s social worker, Angus. Surprisingly, seeing as he sports a green Mohican haircut, Angus genuinely cares about his charge and is completely on her side, and Tinto’s portrayal is truly heart-warming.

The Panopticon is Jenni Fagan’s debut novel. She adapted it for the stage and is now writing the screenplay. From the programme notes it sounds like she wrote this heart-breaking story from experience and, in the hands of  Debbie Hannan and the National Theatre of Scotland, it is gritty and, like most of their productions, truly memorable.

The Panopticon is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until Oct 19.Box Office: 0131 228
Image: Mihaela Bodlovic