Incognito (HighTide Festival, Halesworth)

This new play by Nick Payne can be summed up as a thoroughly cerebral affair, both literally and figuratively.

Incognito mixes fact with fiction with overlapping stories which flick forwards and backwards. It's a little like listening to formal contrapuntal music of the high baroque period, all clever counterpoint – though Payne plays with words, not notes.

Paul Hickey & Amelia Lowdell
Paul Hickey & Amelia Lowdell
© Bill Knight

The production at this year's HighTide Festival is a joint effort from nabokov, Newcastle's Live Theatre and Oxford's The North Wall. Designer Oliver Townsend has arranged the stage as a planked oblong with a part-gutted piano at either end and bars suggestive of a cage (mental? physical?) above it all.

Nabokov's artistic director Joe Murphy uses four actors to take us through the stories of Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 and then took home the brain; Henry Maison who underwent pioneering brain surgery in 1953 and that of a contemporary neuropsychologist called Martha Murphy. Throughout we are conscious of sound, both musical and abstract, devised by Isobel Walter-Bridge.

You can see why Harvey so yearns to discover in the physical matter of the brain what made Einstein so remarkable a physicist and mathematician. You can hope that somehow or other something will bring back full memory to Henry. You understand how medical decisions once taken and acted upon then impact on the lives of many other people so that – in musical terms – the theme is swallowed by all the variations on it.

The acting is very good – Amelia Lowdell as Martha and Einstein's daughter, Alison O'Donnell as Henry's lost love and Martha's possible new lover, Sargon Yelda as sad Henry and Einstein's son and Paul Hickey as Harvey, the man whose obsession ends by ruining rather than making his professional reputation.

Throughout I was engaged by the stories, swept along by the writing and convinced by the performers. It's just that, while I can appreciate the brains of the piece, there is something lacking. Could it be a heart?

Incognito runs at the Rifle Hall, Halesworth as part of the HighTide Festival until 19 April then transfers to London's Bush Theatre between 14 May and 21 June.