Southwark Playhouse’s ‘tiny’ space plays host to Kate Lovell and Alison Neighbour’s, together known as Bread & Goose, intimate and interactive play Lost In The Neuron Forest, a theatrical awareness piece about the capacity of human memory and the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s. With its minimalist cast of two and strong basis of audience participation, it is a piece that is not afraid to look its spectators in the eye, unblinkingly addressing an issue that plagues nearly one million people in the UK and a disease we are found to often treat with a fair degree of detachment and disdain.
Upon entering the bosom space of the play’s setting, we are met with the warm welcome of Anthony, played by Hywel Simons, a man wearing a lab coat and with an air of calmly authoritative intellectualism. He hands each audience member a small light, instructing them to get into small groups and mimic the formation of a star constellation. It feels more like a science workshop than a piece of theatre, a tone which stays for the duration of the play. Offset with this prosaic attitude is the poignant story of Edna, played by Nicky Goldie, a 60-something sufferer of Alzheimer’s, the play adopting a dual narrative and flitting back and forth between them. Transitions between the two narratives are achieved with sporadic fluidity, occasionally seeming a little laboured and disjunctive, but overall not detracting from the play’s ability to get its message across.
The play’s performances were delivered with a large dollop of charm and control, confidently striking the balance between emotiveness and sincerity about its difficult subject. It would have been easy for the play to recede into patronising mawkishness, treating its focus with excessive sentimentalism serving only to dehumanise it further. The play aptly avoids this, addressing the sadness of memory loss but entertaining the possibility of finding comfort in it. Goldie gives a great performance as the loving, maternal and vibrant Edna, all the while precariously teetering of the edge of her memory, deigning to lose hold of her entire life’s events and surroundings. Simons delivers a strong dualistic performance of both the neuropsychologist Anthony and Edna’s late husband Bill, reliably embodying the nostalgia of times gone by and the academic air of the workshop narrative.
The play is centred on a large amount of audience interaction and participation. The audience adopts myriad roles; memory aids, seagulls, stars, even contributors of material to the play. This is established from the very beginning, allowing for a sense of cohesion between audience members, revelling in the shared enterprise of both witnessing and adding to the fabric of the play. Whilst this certainly works in many instances, this sometimes feels a little unnecessary and could be accused of being gimmicky. Though you may come away from the play having reflected on the nature of memory loss to a greater extent due to the interactive dimension, you can’t help but feel that the overall enjoyment of the piece was somewhat hindered by it – a failure or a success depending on the play’s priorities.
The play’s technical attributes and use of lighting, sound and props are highly commendable. Joe McLeod has rendered an effective soundscape, cohering perfectly with the numerous tones of the play and commandingly directing the character of the narrative. Both sound and lighting create an air which evokes the audience’s own memories, in particular memories surrounding the sea and the beach. The simple props of the play, including a radio, flowers, paper seagulls and sand, litter the stage come the end of the play, like Edna’s discarded memories, and are used to great effect as the plot develops.
Lost In The Neuron Forest functions well as an awareness piece, hoping to counteract stock ideas and approaches to memory loss and Alzheimer’s. It treats its key focus with an emotional maturity and humanity in the hope that we may do so in turn. However, its informative air does essentially detract from the theatrical bite of the narrative, moderately undercutting the play’s potential to entertain and move.