Memory Cells, Pleasance – Pleasance Dome
***1/2 (3 ½ stars)
A new play from acclaimed writer Louise Welsh, Memory Cells is a harrowing account of abuse and control. A vulnerable girl becomes imprisoned in the basement of an obsessive older man, where she is subjected to mental and physical cruelty on a daily basis.
This is an almost relentlessly bleak tale. Its power lies in the utter loss of control suffered by Cora and the horror she is then subjected to. The action is played out along a reverse time-line, ending with the first day of her imprisonment. This technique allows the mutable effects of memory to be explored with skill and proficiency. There are complex issues at play here, encompassing ideas of brainwashing practices and the effects of the Stockholm Syndrome.
Emily Taaffe’s portrayal of Cora is measured and she gives real texture to her performance. The shifting mental state of the character aptly demonstrates the power the mind has to protect us from unbearable realities. Taaffe has a difficult task; the climatic state of desolation is the story’s end point, but is the opening sequence of the play. It is a very cinematic device and it does not translate to the stage flawlessly. The allegory of trapped pet hamsters in a tin also seems an unnecessarily obvious addition.
Barry’s character is considerably less developed. Although John Stahl creates moments of real discomfort, staring voyeuristically through the trap in the prison door at his victim, there is no satisfactory explanation provided for his actions. Undoubtedly deluded, there are no tangible clues to his past or what previous encounters have led him to this point. There is not a great deal of variation in Stahl’s delivery either, leaving a bit of a two dimensional air to the portrayal.
None the less, this is a well staged piece of theatre, set in a black box with five wooden flats delineating the walls of Cora’s cell. All the action takes place on or around the utilitarian looking double bed. There are occasional failings here, however, a gratuitous rape scene adds little to the overall narrative and some of the dialogue lacks crispness. What Memory Cells does have is a kind of bravery and honesty in its presentation which makes for an interesting, if rather grim, hour of theatre.
Pleasance Dome, running until 30th August, 5.20pm. £12/£10