Jez: Is that the plan? To flunk your exams so you can stay home and help me look after her? Because I’m telling you now, I won’t let you throw your life away…
Ned: I didn’t hand it in because Mum burned my laptop. Two hundred and twenty degrees for twenty-five minutes. Couldn’t understand why the cheese wouldn’t brown…
Jez: You’re embarrassed. Of her.
Jez: It’s totally understandable.
Ned: When he asked me for it, in that moment, all I wanted to do was protect her. And in a way I am glad it happened. Just for that moment. Because I could. I could protect her. And I remembered I loved her. You love her too.
Jez: Sometimes I want to kill her.
Ned: I know.
Jez: I actually want to kill her.
Ned: I know.
This is Nicola Wilson’s new play, Plaques and Tangles, now having its world premiere at the Royal Court, under the direction of Lucy Morrison. Ostensibly about the ravages, secrets, and isolating factors associated with the possibility of contracting, and actually contracting, Alzheimer’s, Wilson’s play, at least in Morrison’s hands, seems more about family, functioning and not, than anything else.
What engages the interest, at least occasionally, in this overly long, slightly pretentious, and curiously unaffecting tale about one woman and the ravages to others her choices make are the finely observed domestic issues. The “big picture” scenes add nothing to one’s understanding or appreciation of the particular horror that is Alzheimer’s, but the smaller, almost trivial scenes (such as that above) are far more absorbing.
Great swathes of the writing simply alienates. The explanation for the play’s title rings hollowly, for instance, as does some of the imagery evoked. Partly, this may be down to Morrison’s pedestrian direction and Andrew D Edwards’ stupid traverse staging, complete with a stairway to purgatory if not heaven, and the seemingly compulsory representation of the brain by lights in plays dealing with intelligence.
Certainly, there were long sections of the play where nothing was gained by watching proceedings; what value there was came from listening to the words. Wilson’s experiences writing for Radio may play a part in this, but her work is given little help by the paucity of thought involved in the directorial vision and its realisation.
But Wilson must shoulder a deal of the blame. There are many repetitive scenes: it is unnecessary to labour the point about Alzheimer’s sufferers going in circles, being forgetful or suddenly drifting off. Unnecessary and terminal for interest levels. This is a very, very long 100 minutes in the theatre.
Still, there are very worthwhile aspects of the play: the focus on consequences is smart and occasionally thought-provoking. The realisation of ordinary domesticity, simmering resentment, and true love in various modes – sexual, passionate, filial, kind and hard – is well observed, often, by Wilson, and these scenes provide the most satisfaction, dramatically and as thoughtful observation.
As Young Megan, whom we first meet when she is recovering from the one-night-stand night before, is brought to complex, life-embracing realisation in a startlingly good performance by Rosalind Eleazar. Eleazar makes every moment sing with honesty, and sets up beautifully the challenges Megan will face/ignore/be overcome by in her life. Her scenes with Robert Lonsdale’s Young Jez are far and away the most involving of the production.
Lonsdale has never been better, quietly assured but wonderfully inadequate (in his eyes) as the lucky man Eleazar’s Megan chose to alter by their drunken sexual congress and its aftermath. Just as the knowledge that she may be affected by Alzheimer’s sends Eleazar’s Megan into a spin, so is Lonsdale’s Jez sent into a comparable, life-altering spin. It is one of the cleverest things Wilson achieves, underlining that chance and choice can be overwhelmingly positive, even if there are drawbacks.
The beauty and simplicity of the Eleazar/Lonsdale scenes set up the possibility of deep, aching loss for the older version of the couple (Monica Dolan and Ferdy Roberts) but it never quite plays out that way. Dolan is excellent at the lost Megan moments, but she and Roberts are most effective in scenes with others, not with each other. Wilson does not write scenes for them as rich with intimate possibility as she does for the younger versions.
One great exception to this occurs when Roberts’ Jez has to explain, for him again, for us the first time, what has happened to their daughter Lila (an Ophelia-like Alice Felgate): in that scene, the cosy intimacy of the Eleazar/Lonsdale partnership shines in graphic adult mode.
Ted Reilly is an anxious, awkward and appropriate Ned, very much the son of his parents. His unexpected fathering of a child sees him face some repetition of his mother’s journey, but his different decisions see different consequences. The scene about the baked computer and the lost assignment was the best single scene of the evening; cruel, accurate and shudderingly loving.
The scenes where Lila and Ned square up to the task of parenting their mother are genuinely arresting. As is the awkward scene where Ned’s baby-mother, Gwen (an endearing Vanessa Babirye) tells Ned and Robert’s Jez that she is moving away to Glasgow. These scenes, where Wilson gets to the gritty reality of coping with a wasting illness of the mind, engage easily, propelled by good performances.
But in the passages where she is trying to be “bold”, or Morrison is in the manner of presentation, Wilson does not meet the mark.
I won’t explain the title, but it is deeply scientific and slightly too ethereal as the fibre or a binding element of the play. But then so are cowlicks, and you will have to see the production to work that one out.
Plaques and Tangles is both too bold and not bold enough, too big and too small, quaint and overly ornate – all at once. Better direction is required, but so too is another draft.
There is a great play wrapped up in this one. Wilson just needs to prise it out.