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The Theatreguide.London Review

Plaques And Tangles 
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs  Autumn 2015

Nicola Wilson's first play is about Megan, a woman with an inherited form of early-onset Alzheimer's. 

I have to begin the review with that piece of information, because the play withholds it for about half its length, and you might well find it hard to figure out what is going on in the first half without that clue. 

Wilson has chosen the always risky strategy of depicting a character's confusion and disorientation by confusing and disorienting the audience, and it doesn't work. I can't know what it feels like to have Alzheimer's, but I'm not convinced it feels like this. 

The playwright's primary technique for disorienting the audience is to divide the role of Megan between two actresses, Rosalind Eleazar playing her in her healthy twenties and Monica Dolan in her declining thirties and forties. Megan's husband Jez is also played by two actors, Robert Lonsdale and Ferdy Roberts, at corresponding ages. 

Since neither pair the two actresses or the two actors resemble each other physically at all, it can take a while even to figure out that they're the same characters, much less relate the behaviour or mental state of one to the other. 

This is compounded by the playwright's decision to present the story out of chronological order, so that a scene of the older Megan in decline may be followed by one of the younger woman or of the still-healthy older woman, or of some other chronological point. 

One scene is played backwards, answers preceding questions, while a few others turn out to be the late Megan's hallucinations. 

You can understand why the playwright is doing this, in an attempt to replicate the jumble of memories and thoughts within the character, but it is both gratuitously mystifying and not especially evocative of what Alzheimer's might be like. 

Late in the play the fading Megan has a coherent and eloquent one-paragraph speech that evokes the disease more fully than anything else: 'I can't think. But I still feel. And most of the time I feel scared. . . . Because I know this is just the beginning. . . . And so I feel the compulsion to keep talking in case some if it makes sense. . . . I'm more than my brain but my memories are what makes me me, so if I don't remember then who am I? . . . ' 

I even suspect that the playwright herself has trouble keeping up with her own shifting chronology, since a very late scene has the young Megan telling the young Jez something that the entire rest of the play has presumed he didn't learn until much later. 

Director Lucy Morrison doesn't offer the audience much help in keeping up, or guide the actors to discovering or exposing much about their characters, so (disorienting devices notwithstanding) we observe almost all of the play from the outside. 

As happened with Julianne Moore in the similarly-themed movie Still Alice, much of Monica Dolan's acting is done for her by her hair, its degree of being neatly combed or in disarray in any scene our strongest clue as to where we are in the chronology.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Plaques and Tangles  - Royal Court Theatre 2015  
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