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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Bush Theatre      May-June 2014

Nick Payne's new play combines actual people and events with fictions, creating an uneasy mix that is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally involving, and more impressive as an acting and directing exercise than as a coherent whole. 

In 1953 a man named Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery to cure his epilepsy and was left with the inability to create new memories, so that, for example, he had to be introduced to people several times a day, having forgotten meeting them earlier.

In 1955 the pathologist conducting Albert Einstein's autopsy took out and kept the brain, in hopes of studying it for clues to the man's genius. 

To their stories Payne adds a divorced woman beginning a romantic relationship with another woman but hiding her heterosexual past, a murderer with no memory of his crime, a woman who may be Einstein's illegitimate daughter, a reporter feigning friendship to get close to the subject of his story, and a few other passing characters. 

The fragile common theme holding them together, not always successfully, is identity. Is the essence of the great scientist to be found in some tissue samples? Is the man who has no memory of the crime the same one who committed it? And can the man who begins every few minutes with a clean memory be said to have any identity at all? 

Payne's mode is to jump back and forth amongst the story strands without warning, the cast of four changing roles and realities every few minutes, often in mid-sentence.

It is certainly a performance challenge, and all credit must go to Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O'Donnell, Sargon Yelda and director Joe Murphy for creating instant distinct characterisations and always keeping us clear where we are in which story. 

How and why the stories interrelate and what they add up to is a little less clear, in part because the unifying thematic thread of identity is much less evident than I've made it sound, and in part because some strands (notably those of the killer and potential daughter) are undeveloped to the point of seeming leftovers from some earlier draft of the play. 

Nick Payne's writing is never boring, frequently fascinating and ultimately frustrating because it doesn't clearly add up to anything. Joe Murphy's production is impeccable.

Gerald Berkowitz

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