Theatre review - Incognito

Nick Payne’s terrific new play explores the nature of existence and how memories help to define us. He perceptively interweaves three loosely connected stories and is well-served by a first-rate cast.

The first strand follows the fortunes of Thomas Stolz Harvey, the real-life American pathologist who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein in 1955. Thomas steals the brain in order to carry out a series of tests and so, he convinces himself, advance scientific knowledge. The second story begins in England in the 50s and focuses on a young epileptic, Henry who, after brain surgery, can’t remember anything for more than a minute and is stuck in the moment just before the operation as he prepares to go on honeymoon with his beloved wife Margaret. The final story, set in the present day, involves Martha, a recently divorced, neuropsychologist, and her attempts to find love and stability.

Payne poses a number of interesting questions, not all of which are answered. At one point Martha suggests that the brain ‘is a storytelling machine’ that ‘builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment but it’s ultimately an illusion’. She revels in the idea that amnesia can be liberating because ‘if you can’t remember who you are then in a way you aren’t really anyone.’

INCOGNITO is beautifully staged by Joe Murphy and the shifts between scene and location are presented like changes in thought. It’s also superbly performed by Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda, who take on various parts and an impressive range of accents.

There are no changes of costume and it’s an artful device to have us work at remembering who is which character and when, so we become aware of how our memory functions as the play progresses (as well as the actors’ craft). The stories and connections are gradually revealed like pieces of a jigsaw. This is theatre at its best; gloriously intelligent, funny, poignant, and enlightening. Unmissable and fully deserving of a West End transfer.

At the Bush Theatre until 21 June 2014

Review originally published by Theatreworld