Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Theatre review: Donny's Brain

Donny (Ryan Early) is in hospital with brain damage following a car crash. Neurologist Al (Nikesh Patel) is studying him, helping him piece together the parts of his memory that he's lost, and he seems to be making some slow progress. But what would really help is if his partner Emma (Emily Joyce) and her daughter Flea (Skye Lourie) were to visit him, and he can't understand why they haven't. Actually he and Emma had a messy break-up two years ago, and Donny's memory has reset to three years ago when he still loved her - erasing in the process his memories of new wife Trish (Siobhan Hewlett.) Hampstead Theatre's Downstairs season returns with Donny's Brain, Rona Munro's bittersweet play about what might happen if someone really did get the opportunity to turn back the clock on a failed relationship. As the initially angry Emma, who hasn't seen Donny since the break-up, gets a glimpse of the man who was so much in love with her, she also starts to wonder if they could go back to how things were.

Anna Ledwich gives the play a nicely steady, measured production on Andrew D Edwards' traverse stage - a coldly clinical space to tell a story that could, on the surface, be the plot of a romantic comedy. This reflects one of the central issues, the conflict between the very real but intangible nature of emotions and relationships that we feel define us, but which science can break down to a series of electrical impulses in the brain that can be seen on a monitor.

I generally rather liked Donny's Brain although I did have some issues, especially early on, with actually caring about the title character and which, if either of the women, he was going to end up with. He tends to deal with his predicament by being flippant about it, and is particularly vicious towards Trish, the wife he doesn't remember ever meeting. I feel as if Early could have done a bit more to make his cruelty come across as a result of being in a frightening situation where he's being told his life isn't the one he thinks it is. As it is, it comes across more as if Donny and Emma are enjoying a particularly cruel joke at the expense of the distraught Trish. Joyce and Hewlett do, though, have a nice developing relationship in the scenes between just the two of them, the passive-aggressive conflicts between the wife and the ex, fighting over a man one of whom isn't even sure she wants any more, which gradually builds into an understanding of where each other stands.

As the woman who's seen her husband's love for her literally removed from his body, Trish is also the focus of the play's philosophical side, as she tries to get her head round how a person's whole existence can be as fragile as any other part of the body. She's contrasted with Nikesh Patel's Al, and although there's obviously a coldness to his scientific approach and academic interest in the case (of course as well as being a scientist he's also the only character with the luxury of no previous emotional connection to Donny) he was also a character with whose viewpoint I could identify, with finding beauty rather than terror in both the brain's frailty and its resilience. Although not perfect, I found a lot to like in Donny's Brain and the points it makes both emotionally and intellectually, ultimately finding room for romance in its clinical exploration of how our memories make us who we are.

Donny's Brain by Rona Munro is booking until the 20th of October at Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn Space.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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