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Plaques and Tangles (Royal Court)

Nicola Wilson's debut is a 'soupy, sentimental mish-mash'.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

There's been a glut of plays about neurological damage recently – from Florian Zeller's The Father, still playing in the West End, to Incognito by Nick Payne, soon to start in New York, via Melanie Wilson's Autobiographer. Plaques and Tangles is the worst of them.

Nicola Wilson's debut is a soupy, sentimental mish-mash; as pat as it is portentous. It's hard to know whether dodgy direction and design have scuppered her script, or whether Wilson's writing is itself unfixable. Sadly I suspect, it's a bit of both. Everything drags everything else down.

Why this fixation with dementia? As more and more of us succumb to it – some two million by 2051 – these plays portray our likely fate. Actually, they show us the fate we fear. Dementia is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of individualism: to lose one's mind is to lose one's self. All those memories, carefully cultivated over a lifetime, dissolving into nothing.

Megan (Monica Dolan) has early onset Alzheimer's – F.A.D. to be precise, Familial Alzheimer's Disease, passed from parent to child. It killed her mother at 48, as she drove the wrong way down the motorway. Megan's 45. Dolan plays her like someone thinking in ellipses. Her brain seems to bunny-hop – lucid one moment, gurgling the next.

Like Zeller though, Wilson reminds us that dementia drags others down with it: those lives lost to care-giving, the agony of watching a loved one disintegrate, of being forgotten, of having to repeat yourself over and over. "I'll be dead before it's over," Megan explains. It's her husband Jez (Ferdy Roberts) and her two children that have to live with the disease.

At base, it's a play about change and uncertainty, as much as it is about memory. At 21, Megan (played, young, by Rosalind Eleazar, a brilliant debut) faces a choice: she can find out whether or not she carries the genes or live life not knowing until symptoms set in. It's not clear whether we're watching old Megan's memories – warped and distorted, flooded with associations – or young Megan's imagination.

Either way, Lucy Morrison's production never finds the slipperiness or the fluidity of thought, not least because Andrew D Edwards' design is caught between metaphor and representation: a staircase to heaven/the hippocampus on one side of the traverse stage, a double bed on the other. Overhead, there's the obligatory brain-like light sculpture. (See also: Autobiographer, Incognito, The Hard Problem.)

It's a heavy-handed script, the sort in which random tangents about globes and Hawaiian bobtail squid just so happen to be the perfect metaphors for brain functionality. Even the kids toy that interrupts sex is in on the act: ‘A is for Ambulance,' it bleats. Megan's a lexicographer with a first-class English degree because clever folk with dementia are just so much sadder – and we know it's sad because of all the pianos tinkling in the background. Bleurgh.

Plaques and Tangles runs at the Royal Court until 21st November.

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