The Polished Scar
Rialto Theatre – Brighton Fringe
Reviewed – 15th May 2018
“Though the premise of the piece is sound, it can sometimes play out rather predictably”
Conformity comes in many shapes and sizes, but invariably it crushes the soul. This is, in part at least, the moral of The Polished Scar, a one-man play written and performed by Duncan Henderson. However, it is only at around the halfway mark that the conflict at the heart of the piece begins to make itself clear.
Told in a series of vignettes, the play follows an unnamed protagonist through a privileged but ultimately hollow life. At boarding school, he quickly learns that bullying is the best way to avoid being bullied, and that making friends with the “right” people is more important than meaningful relationships. He floats seamlessly from the Oxford Union to a seat in parliament, with the smugness of a man who believes that it is his birth right to do so. But his cold exterior is only a front, a defence against the pain of being sent away from home so young. Inevitably, tragically, the fragile foundations of his life must crumble.
Though the premise of the piece is sound, it can sometimes play out rather predictably. Being as it is a portrait of a Cameronite Conservative, it is almost as though Henderson felt he had to include an episode of coke-fuelled carousing, and later another in which political influence is used to get a friend out of an embarrassing jam. Amusing though these sequences are, they feel somewhat generic and tell us little if anything about the character himself.
Far more interesting are the scenes in which his emotional wounds are most obviously on show. For example, when he has injured a boy in a bullying incident at school, and with the last shreds of his guilt evaporating, he warns the victim “not to make a fuss”. Or later when he is trying to convince his wife that their son will be okay at boarding school, and he repeats the phrase “I went and I’m fine” over and over like some kind of morbid mantra. These chapters are where the true meat of the show is to be found, but too much filler means it is hard to see what direction the piece is going in until well into its hour-long running time.
Henderson himself puts in a strong performance, his smooth, almost hypnotic voice fitting the phony politician’s charm perfectly. The stage dressing is sparse – a single chair and occasionally a table – meaning Henderson must hold our gaze throughout. He succeeds, and perhaps the best thing about this show is just how watchable Henderson is. So believable is his portrayal, that the aforementioned holes in the plot don’t become obvious until afterwards.
At times The Polished Scar can feel didactic, a simple case against upper class social rigidity. But by its devastating finale, it would take an especially cynical viewer to argue that it hadn’t made its case well. The only wish is that it could have been made tighter.
Reviewed by Harry True
The Polished Scar