Review: Incognito by Nick Payne, at the Bush theatre (presented by nabokov)

Alison O'Donnell and Paul Hickey - photo Bill Knight

Alison O’Donnell and Paul Hickey – photo Bill Knight

Young british playwrights are on fire. Not only in the sense they are pretty damn good (even if Dominic Cavendish disagrees), but also because they can’t stop writing. In April, Mike Bartlett opened two new plays within a fortnight, and now Nick Payne’s Incognito performs at the Bush theatre, a couple of months after his Blurred Lines performed at the Shed and Symphony at the Vaults and before The Art of Dying at the Royal Court in July. People ask me why I go to the theatre so much. Try keeping up with these guys.

Skimming through the synopsis of the play, you will pick up words like neuroscience and Albert Einstein’s brain (in a jar no less). Associated images of laboratories and 19th century travelling shows spring to mind (this expression – “it springs to mind” – is pertinent. This is how the brain works, making connections and creating narratives). The reality of the production is far more intriguing.  Nick Payne returns to the themes of Constellations: the burning desire for meaning, human warmth and comfort, all held together by a decaying and fragile piece of human tissue. What happens when we lose a memory, a word, a feeling? Can they be so important if they are so easily lost?

As with Constellations, structure is key: several stories are broken into pieces and rearranged. Four actors play all characters without changing costumes and hardly pausing for breath. The intersection of stories reminded me of the recent John Lewis ad when the movement in one scene carries a link to the next. You are quickly aware of your brain making connections and forming a narrative, very much as is described in the play. The stories come together and make a compelling coherent whole, a testament to the talent of playwright Nick Payne and director Joe Murphy. Or is it my brain striving to create a meaningful universe?

Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda play 21 characters with remarkable fluency and agility. There is something breathtaking in their ability to turn on a dime and our ability to follow. The brain scrambles, readjusts and settles into a rhythm. It’s wondrous, and yet perfectly ordinary.

Special praise should be reserved for the set, designed by Oliver Townsend: a wooden floor of a stage, a piano on each side, a brain in a jar, a letter. The stage, framed by metal bars (some of them pointing inwards), reminded me of the Hellraiser poster. A simple idea, powerfully executed, with comforting and unsettling images perfectly balanced. (On a side note, early in the play a character drops and extinguishes a cigarette on the wooden floor. In last night’s performance, the cigarette found one of the cracks and fell below stage, still lit. For a few minutes and until it burned out, smoke was coming from under the stage, visibly alarming the people behind me).

In the end, what’s left is a man and a piano. And a memory of a loved one that can’t die. What if you can’t remember to forget?

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