Jumpy timelines, genetic testing and the trials of early-onset dementia are just some of the issues covered in this affecting play, says Hannah Fox.
The trend this year for dementia-related films and plays continues, with the arrival of Plaques and Tangles, a play by Nicola Wilson, that’s currently showing at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court.
Like Still Alice the play tackles the topic of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and like the recent products of The Father, it does so with same lurching to-ing and fro-ing between scenes that often leaves you feeling as befuddled and unsure as someone with the condition.
It follows the story of Megan, played by Monica Dolan, who discovers in her 20s that she may carry a gene that gives her a 50:50 chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother had it, and she’s given the chance to have genetic testing.
The play switches between time periods – through the use of different actors – looking at the lives of a young Megan (Rosalind Eleazar), and how she meets her husband and deals with the possibilities that await in her future, and an older Megan (Dolan) in her 40s who is starting to show symptoms of the disease and the dread and fear that it fills her with.
Megan is a lexicographer (someone who compiles dictionaries) so it’s easy to draw parallels with Still Alice (in which the main character is a linguistics professor). And like the Oscar-winning film, it is her loss of words which is so distressing. To watch an extremely articulate woman struggle to remember the word for ‘wardrobe’, to desperately bark out words like ‘glass’, ‘shoe’ and ‘newspaper’, is very moving.
The more difficult aspects of Alzheimer’s are tackled head on, from disturbed sleep and out of character behaviour (which manifests in Megan making hurtful remarks to her daughter), to terrifying hallucinations and faecal incontinence.
Director Lucy Morrison’s production keeps things simple. A double bed sits in the middle of the stage with a set of stairs that lead up in the opposite direction and which, when back-lit, works as a tool for dream and hallucination sequences. The actors leap onto the stage from all directions and above the stage is a flickering light installation made up of a tangled mass of fibre-optic lights – presumably to represent the same tangled confusion within Megan’s brain.
Some of the stand-out scenes include one set around New Year’s Eve, in which the whole scene is played out in reverse with actors entering the stage while walking backwards. It starts with the fall-out from an argument and ends with them all singing Auld Lang Syne together. It’s both brilliant and utterly mind-boggling.
However, it’s the performances from all of the cast that stay with you most. Monica Dolan successfully portrays a woman who is desperate to shield her family from the disease, while still trying to maintain her own fracturing identity. Rosalind Eleazar, as the young Megan, is vibrant, mesmerising, articulate, but also uncertain about what lies in store for her. Husband Jez (played by Robert Lonsdale and Ferdy Roberts in young and older incarnations) is bowled over by Megan’s vivacity and kookiness, but ends up a shell of a man, as he has to deal with the fallout from the disease while also being there for his children.
Light relief comes in the form of Megan’s mother, Eva, played by Bríd Brennan, who appears in dream sequences and hallucinations, and in increasingly garish get-ups, while talking to her about her own dementia. Megan’s children (played by Ted Reilly and Alice Felgate) are excellent as Ned and Lila, teenagers who struggle to come to terms with having to care for their mother, while barely adults themselves.
Plaques and Tangles is not afraid to throw emotional punches at you from every direction, and many people in the audience looked more than a little shell-shocked at the end of the play. However, it’s satisfying to see the topic of dementia and its symptoms being depicted so accurately (and it would seem so regularly) on stage, in order that more people can begin to understand this ravaging disease.
Plaques and Tangles is showing at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court until 21 November.