Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Theatre review: Plaques and Tangles

Plaques and Tangles are two kinds of formations in the brain that are thought to be responsible for Alzheimer's Disease; tangles are also a good description of how Nicola Wilson's play is structured, and not always in the way the playwright, and director Lucy Morrison intended. Megan (Monica Dola) is in her forties, and fast approaching the age at which her mother (Bríd Brennan) died, driving a car the wrong way down a motorway. She had a hereditary form of early-onset Alzheimer's, and as she starts to forget words and get her memories mixed up, it becomes increasingly obvious that Megan has inherited it. In fact, concerned about whether she had the gene, she took a test decades ago, but never told her husband Jez (Ferdy Roberts.)

When their teenage son Ned (Ted Reilly) gets his girlfriend pregnant, the family's genetic history can't remain a secret any more; it may already be too late to prevent tragedy befalling Megan's children in unexpected ways.

There's more than just the theme of mental deterioration and identity that makes Plaques and Tangles reminiscent of other recent plays: Andrew D. Edwards' traverse set is dominated by a bed and a large white staircase ( heaven?) but it's also overhung by a flickering, vaguely brain-shaped light fixture (by Anna Watson) that calls to mind The Hard Problem. The most obvious comparison though is to Florian Zeller's The Father: Wilson's play has the misfortune of playing at the same time as that gets a West End transfer, and comes off the worse in comparison.

As in Zeller's play, we see things from the perspective of the person stricken down by the disease, although where that focused on a character confused by the present, Megan sees past, present and future collide. She looks back on her younger self (Rosalind Eleazar*) and the start of her relationship with Jez (Robert Lonsdale,) which coincided with her finding out her likely fate. We also flash forward to the older Megan, reverted to a baby-like state, in a nursing home.

Plaques and Tangles starts promisingly, but Wilson soon gets bogged down in her own conceit, the theme of deliberate confusion giving her carte blanche to throw all sorts at the stage: The family gets beset by enough tragic events big or small to keep a soap opera in business for six months, while metaphor gets layered upon metaphor. There's a nice idea behind Megan's fixation with Alzheimer's being named after the doctor who discovered it rather than his patient - her identity lost to history just as her mind lost its identity to the illness - but it gets mixed up with more general musings about women being forgotten when men's vanity made them take centre stage.

The unreliable narrator also allows a few too many plot holes - did Ned ever find out if he has the gene? - and scenes that seem implausible: Ned's girlfriend Gwen (Vanessa Babirye) discussing the stretchiness of her vagina with the in-laws, or joining them to strip for no reason on New Year's Eve (though I can't complain about Reilly in underpants so tight they seem to have been spray-painted on; Lonsdale also spends some time running around in his underwear, albeit not as figure-hugging.) And if there's a shred of truth in Megan and Jez's first-ever meeting, it puts a question mark over most of the rest of the plot. A reliably moving Dolan leads a cast that do their best, but in the end Wilson has got them all far too tangled up in plot and metaphor for the play to live up to its early promise.

Plaques and Tangles by Nicola Wilson is booking until the 21st of November at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

*note to Trev: Two actresses of different races play the same character at different points in her life, and the audience did not storm out in confusion, so I reckon they could manage different races within the same family

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