Abi Morgan’s contemporary drama fictionalises the work of David Snowdon, an American Epidemiology professor exploring the effects of Alzheimer’s on a group of nuns. In a tedious opening exchange it is explained that nuns make the perfect test subjects: their lives are sheltered, well-documented and rigidly routine. The decision to allow the study to take place lies with the trainee Mother Superior, Sister Ursula,who is first presented to us after a Christ-like paddle in the local pond. Ursula is a nun for modern times: bristling with humour and humility, she embraces the need for science and religion to unify.
The action spans several years; the team returning annually to record the progress- or indeed, deterioration- of the subjects. It’s an interesting concept and a neat spotlight for certain philosophical issues, yet the script completely lacks verisimilitude. Flimsy love affairs between the young assistants and eventually Ursula and Dr Garfield betray writer Morgan’s attempts to force some humanity onto the stage. The characters are simply mouthpieces for dialogue seemingly lifted straight from a scientific journal. Nicholas Le Prevost’s risible American accent could be forgiven if his crumpled Dr Garfield offered any charisma. The loss of his desire for research in the face of a corrupt industry controlled by pharmaceutical corporations would be an engaging story, if only Le Provost hadn’t left any such desire in the wings at curtain up. Even characters we have a chance of caring about are made to battle against Vicky Featherstone’s cold direction; a style so focussed on functionality and the loneliness of aging, that in row G I felt utterly removed from the story. For a director who describes her source text as ‘dynamic’, I worry about Christmas parties at the Featherstone household.
The plot declines like the mind of our octogenarian heroine, Sister Miriam reduced to an empty shell by the second half. Ursula also loses her faith somewhere along the way, though how this transformation occurs is easy to miss. Perhaps it is explained in one of the bizarre monologues about art, shamelessly spooned into the bland trifle of social issues that Abi Morgan peddles as drama. Some of the more heated scenes discussing how capitalism can enslave our health briefly engage, however any human effect this could potentially produce is lost due to the complete absence of characters with whom we feel any sympathy.
Merle Hensel’s bleak breezeblock design certainly aids the director’s distanced approach to the dialogue. The staging is a hindrance in general: lights fade in and out apparently at random; the changing arrangement of flowers confuses rather than clarifies the narrative; the lone picture window looking out over the gardens is impressive but underused. Sadly, only Maureen Beattie’s thoughtful, pragmatic Sister Ursula brings any colour or vigour to what could and should be a deeply moving, personal story.
It’s worth noting that Aging With Grace, the book that inspired 27, is subtitled ‘How we can all live longer, healthier and more vital lives.’ I would suggest avoiding dull evenings at the theatre.
Image Credit – Ally Lodge