London Theater Review: ‘Elegy’ by Nick Payne

Barbara Flynn, Zoe Wanamaker, Nina Sosanya.

“Elegy” might be described as a memory play — not because it recalls the past but because it is a play that remembers. As in his earlier play “Constellations” (seen on Broadway last season with Jake Gyllenhaal), playwright Nick Payne uses form to reflect his subject and, by writing in reverse chronology, he restores a relationship that has been obliterated by amnesia.

Payne keeps coming back to the brain. His last play, “Incognito,” which opens in New York next month with Charlie Cox (“Daredevil”) among its cast, was a study of Henry Molaison, a.k.a Patient HM, who lost the ability to form new memories as an unintended consequence of pioneering brain surgery.

“Elegy,” debuting at London’s Donmar Warehouse, presents something similar. Rather than the memory mechanism itself, Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) loses a portion of her memory bank. Set in the near future, it imagines a procedure to cure an unspecified degenerative disease by removing a part of the brain, and with it, a set of memories. In practice, that means giving up a part of one’s life, perhaps even a sense of one’s self. In Lorna’s case, it’s the last 25 years – years in which she met, fell in love with and built a life with her wife Carrie (Barbara Flynn). “What’s going to happen to me?” she asks her doctor (Nina Sosanya) – a question that concerns her past, her present and her future all at once.

Popular on Variety

A poem of a play, “Elegy” is more a situation than a story, more mood than plot. It runs backwards, a shape that, in essence, allows Payne to refresh our memories. Bookended by the same scene of Carrie and Lorna’s first meeting after her treatment, the play adds context to that encounter the second time around with color, feeling and even love. We see the meeting first as Lorna does, stripped of its emotional significance; later, through Carrie’s eyes, aware of everything that has come before. It’s a quiet, contemplative gesture, one that questions the relationship between feeling and thought. Love exists not in the heart, Payne suggests, but in the mind. It is itself, perhaps, a memory.

The reverse chronology recalls Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” but here it becomes an examination of fidelity. As the play works back, Carrie and Lorna focus on the future, and whether or not to press ahead with surgery. Carrie has to trust that some memory of her, some trace of feeling, will survive in Lorna, and Flynn lends her a graceful patience, always standing back, giving Lorna space, supporting her. Her faith runs through the play — in God, in science and in love — so strong and certain it almost remains unspoken.

They are a beautifully drawn couple, so ordinarily in love. Flynn is so solid, Wanamaker so airy, yet as “Elegy” rewinds, you watch the two of them re-entwine, planning poetry readings for their and sharing jokes. They wrap their arms around one another, climb on top of each other, only to end up sat, side by side, in a hospital room, contemplating divorce.

Behind them, in Tom Scutt’s scorched-earth design, beautifully lit by Paule Constable, stands a vast tree trunk, split down the middle – a single thing divided in two, not unlike the brain itself. Josie Rourke’s production does its best to counter the glint of sentimentality in Payne’s writing, inevitable in dwelling so squarely on death, endings and loss, but this is a mournful, minor-key delight: rich, still and ruminative.

London Theater Review: 'Elegy' by Nick Payne

Donmar Warehouse, Donmar Warehouse; 250 seats; £37.50 ($55) top. Opened, reviewed April 27, 2016. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Production: A Donmar Warehouse production of a play in one act by Nick Payne.

Creative: Directed by Josie Rourke. Design, Tom Scutt; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Ian Dickinson.

Cast: Barbara Flynn, Zoe Wanamaker, Nina Sosanya.

More Legit

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

  • 'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With

    'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Zawe Ashton has signed with CAA, Variety has learned. Most recently seen on Broadway in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betryal,” Ashton is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. In addition to being an in-demand actress, Ashton is a director, playwright and author. While earning critical raves for “Betrayal,” Ashton made her debut as a [...]

  • Michael Feinstein Kristin Chenoweth Sutton Foster

    Jerry Herman Memorial Set for Feb. 3 at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

    A memorial service for Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Michael Feinstein is producing the tribute, which will feature performances from a number of notable legit stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Angela [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content