My old landlord was a globe-maker, my grandfather died of dementia, and Plaques and Tangles may be the worst thing I have ever seen in the Jerwood Upstairs. Competing only with that time that Nick Payne sat in a chair and talked about the ending of My Girl for an hour, Nicola Wilson’s full-length debut is an intractable morass of good intentions and dreadful execution.
With an almost all-female team headed up by talented Clean Break regular Lucy Morrison, and an unflinchingly head-on approach to a major topic, this is exactly the kind of proposition the Royal Court should be backing, but unfortunately neither Wilson’s script nor the amateurish and shaky production is in the least bit convincing.
Plaques and Tangles skips backwards and forwards through twenty-six years in the life of Megan, who discovers she suffers from Familial Alzheimer’s Disease. It killed her mother, it will probably kill her, and then it will hop down her genetic line, offering a 50% chance of oblivion to her children and her children’s children. Megan is a lexicographer, giving Wilson plenty of space to play with the breakdown of language, and as the disease finally strikes she’s forced to consider how to explain this terrible genetic inheritance to her children.
The situation should be excruciating, heart-breaking. Great theatrical meat has been made from dementia as recently as Florian Zeller’s The Father and Barney Norris’s Visitors. But here it dissolves into banal arguments, fussy explanations, inexplicable behaviour and entirely incredible metaphorical flights of fancy. Megan’s husband Jez takes up globe-making as the disease begins to eat away at her, and he pontificates significantly on what it means for the impermanence of experience. Her son Ned makes grand pronouncements about the presence of bananas rotting the other fruits in the bowl. It’s all so mechanical and so laboured, it emerges from a writer’s toolkit not a living world with living characters.
Morrison’s production struggles to snap it into life, with a kitchen-sink approach that sees the dramatic register frequently jerk into strange shapes, as scenes are played in reverse or become loose hallucinations. Rather than giving presence to the disorientating effect of Alzheimer’s, they feel like increasingly desperate attempts to give the muddy and meandering narrative some sharpness and rigidity. The cast has plenty of talent, but it has been peculiarly positioned. The colour-blind casting of Monica Dolan and Rosalind Eleazar as old and young Megan is great in and of itself, but they seem to be playing entirely different women – it’s impossible to believe one will age into the other. If that’s a conscious choice, it’s not a wise one, as coupled with the far greater similitude between the performances of Ferdy Roberts and Robert Lonsdale as old and young Jez, it totally nerfs the emotional journey.
Compounding these issues is a muddled and awkward design from Andrew D Edwards, with a sloppily manoeuvred bed the centre-piece, shifted back and forth on castors, laid out as an unconvincing table and just generally getting in the way. With the space laid out in traverse, there’s also a massive fuck-off staircase that obscures the action for a third of the audience, and is almost totally unused, excepting for an absurd Long Days Journey Into Night moment in the final scene where Megan’s mother Barbara emerges as a spectre with floor length white hair. A knot of neon tubes that hangs from the ceiling sort-of suggests neurons firing, or not firing, but it feels a pale imitation of Bob Crowley’s design for Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, or even Tom Scutt’s clusters of glowing balloons in Payne’s Constellations.
Whether it’s the cringe-y dialogue, the mismatched performances, moments such as one in which stage-hands can be seen tossing costume elements onto the stage from gaps in the curtains for Dolan to deck herself in, or just the sheer accumulation of insufficient elements, it’s genuinely a puzzle how this production has opened on that stage. Numerous swerves from the printed text suggest some major last-minute tinkering, but what’s really needed is a total overhaul from first principles. Claggy, turgid and hopelessly unengaging, if Alzheimer’s turns out to run in my family, the one consolation is…no, no, that’s not fair. I’ve forgotten it already.