Science and religion are in conflict and collusion in Abi Morgan’s fascinating new play 27. Using the annual cognitive studies on nuns carried out by a group of scientists researching Alzheimer’s disease as her starting point, she brings ideas of faith and the waning of convent life into sharp focus.
Colette Oâ€™Neil, Maureen Beattie, Finn den Hertog and Nicholas Le Prevost in 27 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh Photo: Richard Campbell
This moves swiftly along under Vicky Featherstone’s bold and fastidious direction. Merle Hensel’s austere, grey-walled set opens up the performance space, at once focussing the eye onto the performers while allowing a rear window to suggest a place of great tranquillity beyond.
Colette O’Neil stands out as Sister Miriam, the head of a convent of Catholic nuns in the west of Scotland. Her relinquishing of the role to her younger protegee, Maureen Beattie’s doubting Sister Ursula, coincides with the arrival of Nicholas Le Prevost’s American scientist, Dr Richard Garfield, and his entourage of younger doctors - his colleague Helen (Libby King) and the ambitious Sam (Finn den Hertog), imposed by a funding partner.
As the scientist’s annual weekly visit marks the passing of the years, O’Neil observes Miriam’s deterioration with horrifying accuracy. In the universally strong, eight-strong cast, Molly Innes as Sister Ruth stiffens the religious questions where the initial moral dilemma lies in the post-mortem removal of the subject’s brain. Antagonism between Sam and Richard soon highlights the delicate balance between finance and pure science.
With so much to be questioned Morgan is guilty of overwriting at times. Injecting extra dilemmas with strands and details that would work better on television, is unnecessary in a play which might be fundamentally short on plot but is big on ideas.