Review: 27, Royal Lyceum Theatre

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NUNS’ near-identical, regulated lifestyles make them ideal candidates for scientific study.

Why do some people develop Alzheimer’s disease while others do not? What is it about some people that helps them hold on to their mental faculties despite physical brain damage?

The “27” of the title refers to 27 Scottish nuns who are invited to take part in a research experiment on Alzheimer’s. An uneasy alliance of American and British scientists conduct the study, growing emotionally attached to the convent they work with. But when the mother superior deteriorates towards death, the faith and relationships of the characters start to fall apart.

Nicholas Le Prevost is convincing and touching as British scientist Dr Garfield, but the abiding image of the show is Colette O’Neil playing the mother superior opposite Maurine Beattie as her protege Sister Ursula – their developing relationship is the most vivid of the piece. The uncompromisingly complex Ursula is certainly a worthy challenge for Beattie, who brings an unexpectedly firm physical presence to the role which is mesmerising to watch.

It’s a sprawling novel of a play, suffering from a lack of focus which can make it hard to follow at times. Clearly, writer Abi Morgan doesn’t feel able to give us easy answers to the questions raised by her material, or to pin down a particular set of questions.

Perhaps it is because of this refusal to impose order that the play has such a deep emotional resonance and analytical possibility. It’s a play that invites reflection, and certainly deserves rewatching.

In the battle of the National Theatres, Scotland has certainly outclassed the English NT’s One Man, Two Guvnors which is playing down the road at the King’s.

27 is a raw, messy exploration of a dark and complex subject matter. It couldn’t contrast more with One Man, a West-End farce whose thematic content is largely restricted to glib punning and silly walks.

For pure entertainment though, no-one would argue the NT doesn’t win hands down.

Run ends November 12