I'm sure you know the Philip Larkin poem: the one about how your parents mess you up, because their parents did the same to them. Never has that process been laid out more clearly than it is in The Polished Scar, written and performed by Duncan Henderson. This is a one-man display of acting virtuosity, with a couple of interesting themes to explore.
The story follows a politician – a right-wing politician, I think it's safe to say – who we first see at the despatch box, demolishing an opponent with haughty disdain. A second later we're snapped back in time, to a moment when he wasn't so self-assured: he's a child now, at boarding school, overwhelmed by the secret pain of knowing that his parents sent him away. But they tell him that he "has to be brave", and we watch as the brutality of that formative experience both shapes and defines him. When the time comes, against his wife's objections, he sends his own son to the same school – with sadly inevitable results.
There's an element of rebuke here, directed at Tory throwbacks like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but the political content is generally predictable and a little reliant on stereotype. The script says more, I think, in its indictment of parenthood: its reflection on how people take the unhappiest things from their childhoods and, knowing no better, inflict them on their own children. The "scar" in this case is the isolation of boarding school, but it could equally be neglect or violence. The results are very different – yet the fundamental process is the same.
There's no mistaking the quality of Henderson's performance. As his character grows from a child into a man, he reflects his growth through subtle changes in expression and pose: the details are nuanced and evocative, never over-done. The story's other characters have an almost physical presence, as Henderson reacts and interacts with invisible people around him. The image of his unseen child clinging on to his legs is an especially well-worked and memorable one.
And the script is clever too. Not a word is wasted, there are no lumps of explanation – yet it's always clear, at every moment, exactly what's going on. And the character is clear as well, the measure of the man we're dealing with. There's no need for Henderson to highlight his misogyny or self-satisfaction; every now and then, a well-chosen word or two gently fills us in.
It takes real skill to tell a story so economically – but the short scenes and frequent blackouts grated on me after a while, and the downside to the sparse exposition is that the pace at times feels slow. Still, The Polished Scar is thought-provoking, and there are aspects to the story I'm still mulling over a couple of days on. A genuine tour-de-force of performance – and an interesting comment on a sad truth of life.