Plaques and Tangles
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Early onset Alzheimer's becomes strangely alluring in Nicola Wilson smart new play.
Alzheimer’s: not the sexiest of diseases… or is it? It’s certainly a disconcertingly popular subject in theatre at the moment, with two plays about it currently running in London: West End smash ‘The Father’ and Nicola Wilson’s ‘Plaques and Tangles’ . Neither are what you’d call traditional weepies: instead they use the slipperiness of memory brought on by the cruel condition to craft chic, ambiguous thrillers.
Megan’s mother died aged 48 in an accident brought on by her early onset Alzheimer’s, a hereditary form that’s 50 percent likely to have been passed to her children. It hangs over the life of fiery young Megan (Rosalind Eleaszar) like the sword of Damocles – does she dare take the test to find out if she has it? Or should she just crack on with life with Jez, the intriguing young man she met on her own hen-do?
‘Plaques and Tangles’ takes place in different times and even perhaps different realities, as we see Megan throughout her life – in later years played by Monica Dolan – as her and Jez (Robert Lonsdale and Ferdy Roberts) start a family, have kids, and try to cope with what would appear to be the beginnings of the disease. As well as a clutch of very strong performances (particularly Dolan), what really makes Lucy Morrison’s’s production work is its structure. Non linear and frequently self-contradictory, it’s like a standard family drama that’s been blown to smithereens and reassembled from the smouldering shards.
‘Plaques and Tangles’ – named after the phsyical manifestations of dementia on the brain – manages to turn memory loss into something exotic, even strangely alluring. So yes, there are some very grim bits to Wilson’s play, notably the later portions where it becomes less about Megan, more about the terrible toll that caring for her is taking on her family. But there’s also a lot of humour, some fun experimental stuff – one bravura scene takes place entirely in reverse – and an underlying mystery as to why certain events simply don’t add up. Does Alzheimer’s make us change our memories of the past to more comforting ones? Or is that simply natural human capacity? It’s never clear through whose eyes we’re supposed to be seeing events, and as the play wears on, Jez seems to have an increasingly imperfect relationship wth reality. But do any of us have a perfect one?
‘Plaques and Tangles’ is not a barrel of laughs, but the brightness of its invention stops the dark from overwhelming it.