Photo by Emma Earnshaw

CW: mentions of cancer & medical procedures.

This play instantly stands out for two reasons: firstly, it is the first student play I’ve seen to get a standing ovation. Secondly, it was the closest a student play has ever come to making me cry. Skin, a new play by Peter Todd for Scar Theatre, was ambitious, emotional and, above all, a very human portrayal of the absurdity and swiftness of chronic illness. It follows the journey of Sadie (Izzy Lever), a young woman who is diagnosed with melanoma – a type of skin cancer. We follow her story as she goes through early treatment and surgery whilst trying to balance the news of her diagnosis with relationships and work. 

Photo by Emma Earnshaw

The ending of the play is revealed in the programme’s synopsis, namely that ‘we leave the theatre not knowing the outcome of Sadie’s treatment’. This lack of knowledge, this open-ended conclusion that doesn’t actually conclude anything, perfectly encapsulates the whirlwind of feelings and experiences that Sadie goes through in a short amount of time, intensified by the fact that the play is only an hour long. The play highlights the disconnect between the emotions felt and the way in which the medical journey, as Sadie discusses it, treats the patient as  ‘something to be fixed’. When being diagnosed, Sadie doesn’t have time to process as the doctor keeps talking in jargon. When going for her surgery, the doctor says things are ‘completely normal’ when they clearly aren’t. Nothing is normal when your life is being torn apart like that. All that is left to do is endure the illness. 

The sound and the stage design is ambitious but very effective. The audience always understands where they are, whether Sadie moves from being with her sister or goes to the hospital or travels to work. The smooth transitions help reflect the pace of Sadie’s journey, while all the technical elements are very accomplished. I was curious as to how the hospital setting would be imitated, yet was impressed by its efficacy. It was extremely effective. The scene where Sadie goes for her CT scan is immersive. The audience can hear the noises of the scan in uncomfortable surround sound whilst the actors whirl Sadie around with fluorescent lights. The doctor’s voice is projected over the top of this chaos. The stage felt small compared to the wealth of seats in the Keble O’Reilly theatre but it commanded attention. The cast was amazing and it was interesting to see how the actors playing people in Sadie’s life also doubled at playing doctors and nurses. It simultaneously showed the skill of those actors (Ava Balaji, Philippa Lang, Sal Algannin, Proshanto Chanda) and revealed Sadie’s feeling of isolation  as she went through the motions of declaring ‘I’m alive […] I’m so much more than a fucking disease.’

Photo by Emma Earnshaw

In a play that handles difficult issues, Skin achieves the important aspect of balancing the story with its challenging subject matter. Sadie makes a joke about her surgery to her sister, Clara (Elise Busset), which doesn’t particularly land with her, but, as Sadie argues, being able to make jokes is important. When faced with debilitating circumstances like illness and the difficulties that come with it, the human reaction is often to try and find the light side of it, however absurd that may feel. Skin is a play that not only tugs at the heartstrings in a way I’m sure many in the audience can painfully relate to, but it reminds us that we are not alone. In one of the most tense moments of the play, when Sadie appeals to a receptionist to get her test results back from the doctor, the speaker blasts John Elton’s Tiny Dancer as the distressed Sadie is put on hold by the hospital. It was amusing yet also so painfully relatable – who hasn’t been assailed by the depressing sound of cheesy hits in situations like that? It achieves what Scar Theatre states as its principal aim: ‘sharing the humanity in ugly stories, warts and all.’ The situation feels so real, because it is. The characters feel so real because you can imagine the conversations between Sadie and Clara have happened to so many people. Ultimately, the cast and crew produce a beautiful, touching play that is as relatable as it is uncomfortable to watch. 


Special thanks to Bethan Draycott.