Secret Thoughts

David Lodge
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
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In David Lodge's adaptation of his own ten-year-old novel Thinks..., the "Two Cultures"—as C P Snow famously titled them just over half a century ago—of science and the humanities come together to tackle the issue of defining and describing human consciousness, more specifically "qualia". Or is it really an intellectualising of a more familiar story of two people who, however close they become, can never truly know the other's mind?

Of course Secret Thoughts is both and much more, as the multiple layers in this intelligent and witty script constantly refer to one another as we delve through philosophy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and literature to what is essentially a romantic comedy underneath.

"Qualia" is the philosophical term for our subjective sensory experiences of the world that can not be explained satisfactorily by current science; the example given by Ralph Messenger, the cognitive scientist in the play, is, "the smell of coffee, or the perception of the blue sky on a clear day". The two people trying to tackle this problem in different ways are Messenger (known simply as "Messenger" even by his family) and novelist Helen Reed, who is teaching on the MA creative writing course temporarily and living in a flat on campus at this fictional university near Cheltenham. Both are experimenting in their respective fields by recording their own thoughts: Messenger on an old dictation machine and Reed in a written journal on her laptop (projected onto the backdrop for the audience's benefit).

Reed is still struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her husband from an aneurism at the age of 42, whereas Messenger has a wife and family but is painted, through his own voiced thoughts, as a philanderer from the start. When he sees Reed wandering the campus alone on a wet Sunday, he inevitably pursues her. In typical rom com style, the story is then about whether she gives into his obvious charms and overcomes her scruples about deceiving his wife Carrie, with whom she is becoming increasingly friendly, but then the second half changes and becomes darker.

The story has been updated from the novel to set it in the current time, particularly with the technological and scientific references, which mostly rings true although it is difficult to understand why a tech-savvy lecturer with the latest iMac on his desk and the latest iPhone in his pocket records on one of those old pocket dictating machines that use miniature cassette tapes that must be difficult to get hold of now. His iPhone could actually do this much better.

There are some fascinating, in-depth discussions about the nature of "self" and the differing approaches to describing qualia by science and literature that tie into the idea of keeping a journal, which they both do as part of their work, on top of a very simple basic story about the relationship between two people and the obstacles they have to try to overcome. The journals give credence to the characters' direct address to the audience to reveal their inner thoughts in a way that a novelist can do easily, creating a modern version of the soliloquy.

The play is perfectly cast with Rob Edwards totally believable as the tactless but beguiling scientist Messenger, while Kate Coogan gets across Reed's continuing grief over her husband's death, her moral scruples at Messenger's approaches and a discomfort about frank talk on sex, religion and morality that Messenger lacks entirely in a perfectly believable way, making her the character we sympathise with. David Thacker's subtle but detailed direction allows everything to happen at a fairly slow, hesitant pace, which draws the audience into the world of these characters and lets their relationship and the humour evolve naturally.

Lodge has reduced his novel to a simple comedy about a relationship between two people without reducing the complexity of the moral, scientific and philosophical arguments behind it and without it looking like a novel translated to the stage. It is funny, engaging, thought-provoking and well-worth a trip to Bolton to see.

Running until 4th June 2011

Reviewer: David Chadderton