27 @ The Citizens Theatre
American Epidemiologist Dr Richard Garfield (Patrick Drury) and his team travel to the West of Scotland to persuade the residents of a convent to participate in a clinical study. If they join, their sister convent in Aberdeen is likely to follow and such a controlled, contained environment makes for ideal subjects. Named after the twenty-seven potential candidates that could be recruited from these two Scottish convents, the play follows the study’s progress over five years as the study team test the nuns’ mental faculties during their research into ageing and Alzheimer’s disease.
In some ways this narrative would be more suited to the screen than to the theatre. As a play of ideas 27 is rather cerebral, which is fitting given its subject matter is the brain. But for much of the play the action is muted and any real conflict takes place inside the characters, under the surface. The nuns, despite their reservations, consent easily to the study. A nun turns out to be the ideal subject but is not tested. The study team return year after year.
It all comes to a head in act four when the internal conflict is finally externalised and the room is charged with a real frisson of energy. The impact of the regular visits from the study team pose a serious distraction and challenge to the sisters, and combined with Miriam’s decline, build to a crisis of faith which is beautifully and movingly judged. As relationships develop, what is not said makes for a satisfying finale. In this way 27 is a slow burn of a play.
While the team study brains in decline the play also touches lightly on a vocation in decline; the monastic life. The way is hard but the nuns in this piece are a gloriously feisty bunch: Molly Innes’ Sister Ruth exhibits unwavering passionate belief and Colette O’Neil’s Sister Miriam is sprightly and sparky. If Miriam is the brain behind the convent then Sister Ursula is its heart. Guileless, open and endearing Maureen Beattie’s performance as Ursula is as natural as it is stunning.
27 is as thought-provoking as theatre should be and tackles not only science and religion but our inherent need for belief and where that comes from. The film The Song of Bernadette begins with the words ‘for those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.’ It is just as much a conundrum in 27.