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Secret Thoughts by David Lodge at Bolton Octagon

Published by: Caroline May on 16th May 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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In theory a play about philosophy and scientific investigation isn’t my idea of a good night out – I’m not French after all.  But on reflection I realise that many an enjoyable evening at the theatre has sprung from just such dry origins.  For instance, Pierre Marivaux’s romantic comedies put the spotlight on the psychology of the Enlightenment; Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water use the very philosophical notions they reference for their dramatic frameworks; and that’s without even mentioning Tom Stoppard’s entire oeuvre.

Adapted from his own novel Thinks…, acclaimed critic and academic David Lodge has written a Platonic dialogue between a writer of fiction and a professor of cognitive science in which they explore the different meanings of consciousness and its subjective experiences (Qualia) using their particular specialisms.  What David Lodge the award-winning storyteller and dramatist creates is an unusual, often funny and sometimes moving two-hander which charts the love story between two oddly endearing characters.

Recently bereaved forty-something Helen is trying to get over the sudden loss of her husband by swapping her introverted occupation as a novelist for a semester of teaching at one of the newer universities.  But she’s living alone on campus, and as her colleagues head home at 5pm she feels more isolated than ever.  There’s nothing for her to do but sit in front of the computer and examine her feelings via an intimate, almost spiritual journal.

Media don Ralph is one of the stars of the science faculty, and with his charm, good looks, rich wife and adoring fans he can come across as a little arrogant and self-centred, although deep down he’s worried about leaving behind a lasting academic legacy.  As he burbles random thoughts into an audio recorder and tries to take his subconscious by surprise we notice that the recurring themes of his discourse are less intellectual than he might have hoped.

Ralph’s not entirely disinterested impulse to befriend Helen leads to a discussion about grief, and thence to his own researches into consciousness.  But as the pair kick philosophical ideas around a spark of something extracurricular arises between them 

Although the raw intellectual ideas in the play are very interesting and accessibly presented, it’s the relationship between the characters which grips, entertains and emotionally engages.  The slightly overlong first part of the play is mainly about the philosophy; the second part becomes almost soap opera-like in its dramatic twists and turns.

Rob Edwards has worked at the Octagon before, but seizes the chance to come centre-stage with a vivid and charismatic performance as Ralph the suave, sexually insatiable scientist.  The writer and actor make the hesitant speech patterns seem so natural and spontaneous that we almost seem to be watching the very thoughts being processed in the character’s brain, although the playwright slyly implies that Ralph does most of his thinking with another part of his anatomy.  The boyish charm and flirtatious sense of humour make Ralph as irresistible to the audience as he is to Helen.

Helen is in an obviously sympathetic position but there are elements of self-pity and lack of humour in the character which Kate Coogan skilfully manages to avoid.  She is an immediately attractive and likeable actor, and while her brave smile endows Helen with a kind of inward fortitude, the shy eyes and evasive gaze remind us of her inward suffering.

There’s a definite chemistry between the two actors, and for them to carry so huge and challenging a play with such apparent effortlessness is a massive achievement.

Ciaran Bagnall’s clean, high-tech design is like the set for a sci-fi movie, dominated by an impressive architectural structure which references the two hemispheres of the brain.  David Thacker’s direction is so good it’s invisible.

David Lodge has written a play which perhaps imagines that it’s slightly cleverer than it really is, but the story and characters make this a superb new drama - and who’s going to complain about that?

Secret Thoughts is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 4 June 2011
Tickets: £9.50-£21.50
Performances: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Sat 21 & Wed 25 @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
www.octagonbolton.co.uk

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