Stage review: Incognito, Bush Theatre

STAGE_incognito.jpg

WHAT'S ON

Incognito
Bush Theatre
★★★★✩

The image repeats itself throughout Nick Payne's engrossing new play: a ribbon of starlings flocking together, flashes of silver on the wing, creating apparent order from a frenzy of dots.

This is one of the ideas of identity explored in these interweaving stories reflecting on the notion of selfdom: whether a person is made of their decisions, their physiology, their memory or some other bravura alchemy.

Or as newly-bisexual neuropsychologist Martha puts it: "The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment but it's ultimately an illusion. The brain is a storytelling machine and it's really, really good at fooling us."

Like those hypnotic starlings, this piece - an absorbing 90 minutes - dissolves and emerges, clarifies and confuses as the theories are worked through in punchy and gripping vignettes drawn from three stories - two true and a fiction.

The tales of the theft of Einstein's brain by Thomas Harvey; a woman's dramatic lifestyle choices when she quits a failed marriage; and the plight of Henry Molaison, forever in the present tense because of a continual loss of memory span a century of thought and epiphany.

The guiding lights throughout the maze and caverns of the mind are the four actors playing 21 parts.

Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda drive each other's performances to ever keener levels of truth, perspicacity and humour.

Joe Murphy's direction is quick but generous. He sets the action on a plain stage, a metalwork matrix overhead, two pianos as bookends and a brain in a jar as a reminder of the cryptic protagonist of the piece.

Although the characters may change mid-scene, we are never lost thanks to the quartet's dexterity with mood, accent, body language and demeanour. Martha, Teddy, Henry, Margaret, Thom et al are all alive in their moment.

Payne's quest for the seat of self is not helped by the power of the brain to shy away from scrutiny and, the playwright suggests, a sly glimpse at fragmentary truths may be the best we can hope for.

If that is the case, this impressionistic production might suggest how those stroboscopic flashes of insight might be present themselves.
Giles Broadbent

Until May 21, Bush Theatre, 7.30pm, £19.50 (concs), bushtheatre.co.uk

Image: Paul Hickey and Amelia Lowdell in Incognito © Bill Knight