Friday, 16 May 2014

Theatre review: Incognito

Nick Payne scored his best-received play so far, Constellations, by using scientific hypotheses to structure his narrative. He now replaces quantum physics with neuroscience for his latest, Incognito. Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda play numerous roles in three separate stories whose themes sometimes connect and spark: A young man in 1950s England, Henry (Yelda,) has brain surgery intended to stop his blackouts, but instead it results in a rare, debilitating form of amnesia that makes him a medical oddity. A couple of years later in America, Albert Einstein dies. Thomas (Hickey) carries out the autopsy, and in the process steals his brain. Using it to determine the physical source of genius becomes a lifelong obsession. And in the present day, neuropsychologist Martha (Lowdell) gets divorced; her fresh start in life sees her date a woman (O'Donnell.)

Setting Constellations' story over several parallel universes might appear to make it the more obscure piece, but it's Incognito that probably ends up asking more questions, while providing fewer answers.

It's ultimately a play about what makes someone who they are. Of course the answer lies in the brain but whether a person's identity and their greatest strengths and weaknesses are determined by the physical organ, as Thomas is determined to find, or by the memories it holds, is less easy to pin down. Henry's inability to make new memories leaves him stuck in one point of his life, making it impossible to cope with the world changing around him. His tragedy is that it's one of the happiest moments of his life, so he has to constantly relive the realisation that what he had in that moment is gone. Martha believes that being able to leave your memories behind would be a blessing, but her own attempt to erase her complicated past doesn't do her new relationship any favours.

Joe Murphy's production, on a symmetrical traverse stage from Oliver Townsend with a piano on each side, their front panels taken off to reveal their workings, similarly feels as if it's opening something up to reveal the synapses sparking inside. There's good use of accents to differentiate between the many characters (this sort of thing can often feel like the actors are just showing off how many voices they can do, but for the most part the choices here feel organic.) And Murphy finds enough variety to keep the scene changes as we jump between storylines interesting.

Something about Incognito is a bit too slick and busy to really engage the emotions - although there's plenty of moments where the characters face heartbreak, the play is a bit too full of ideas, and zips to the next story too quickly to really let us feel for them. But if there's a bit too much emotional distance here, it's still a fiercely intelligent play with a quartet of impressive performances.

Incognito by Nick Payne is booking until the 21st of June at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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