27 (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)
The story is loosely based on an actual study of the ageing process in general and Alzheimer’s Disease in particular. We’re in a convent, somewhere in the more remote and beautiful Scottish countryside. The current superior Sister Miriam (Colette O’Neil) has agreed to a proposal from Dr Garfield (Patrick Drury) that her nuns take part in his research. What gradually becomes clear is that, while Richard Garfield is himself interested in this purely from a scientific viewpoint, his colleagues have more specific agendas.
These centre around funding from a major international drug corporation. A lot of money is at stake, as well as prestige and the financial benefits that brings in its turn. So brash Dr Sam Parker (Finn den Hertog, ambitious and libidinous Dr Helen Jarvis (Lesley Hart) and somewhat washed-up Dr Jonathan Lees (Benny Young) have devised a plan for the actual brains of the nuns to be removed after death for examination in the expectation that this will prove their thesis decisively. Not to say speedily.
And that’s not to mention that they’re regularly leaking details of the progress of the research to the drug company in order to maintain its interest. Sister Miriam’s designated successor is the much-young Sister Ursula (Maureen Beattie). She’s clear-sighted about the study, which could help the convent materially if not spiritually, and knows that premature senile dementia is something which runs in her own family. But religion sets its own boundaries, and these are not necessarily the same as those of science – be that pure, applied or just slightly contaminated.
On the periphery of these main characters are the older Sister Ruth (Molly Innes and the young would-be postulant Audrey Hague (Ashley Smith). You can’t fault the performances, which are uniformly excellent. You do have to pay full attention to Abi Morgan’s script, which is literate and demanding of both the actors and the audience. Marie Hensel’s set at first appears forbidding, with its towering grey walls relieved only by cantilevered staircase to one side. Then the back wall opens to reveal a river scene almost Japanese in its balance and tranquillity.
If Morgan’s words have the same sort of stark directness, they’re properly accommodated by Vicky Featherstone’s production. Beattie, O’Neil and Drury stand out as much for the roundedness of their characterisations as because they are the principal pivots for the plot. But this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre made me what to more of the work of everyone involved.