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The Art of Dying

Nick Payne
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Nick Payne Credit: Tristram Kenton

Nick Payne is undoubtedly one of the hottest young playwrights around, but this was his first chance to show his mettle performing in front of a live audience.

Sir David Hare followed this route commencing over a decade ago, converting himself to a performer in the Downstairs theatre with Via Dolorosa and Wall with similar impact. This may not be as significant an event, but it is still moving.

The initial impression is not of an actor but an ordinary man relating a tale to friends.

Dressed in open-necked shirt, jeans and sneakers with thick-rimmed spectacles, the young man sits on a plastic chair, nervously sipping from a pint glass of water between each section of three interlinking tales.

Given that the connection is the process of departing this mortal coil, it seems appropriate that the short sections are divided by the kinds of beeps emitted by hospital heart monitors in TV dramas and, one imagines, real life.

The play that Payne has written and performs animatedly, under the direction of Michael Longhurst, seems to combine autobiography with carefully researched biography. However, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that one or more part might be, to a greater or lesser degree, fictional.

The framing story is that of Maggie Noonan, a woman diagnosed with a fatal disease who eventually deserves a place in the spotlight due to a currently fashionable desire to end it all earlier than nature intends.

However, the meat of the drama in a thoughtful 45 minutes is comprised of parallel tragedies affecting the performer's father, Clive, and Arline Feynman, the first wife of the great physicist Richard.

Sadly, each starts out well before being diagnosed with a fatal illness and eventually passing away. While one hates to pre-empt a good plot, the title rather gives away this much anyway.

Payne then observes his own behaviour and contrasts it with that of the scientist. Our guide can do little but ease his father's pain and decide how much truth should be revealed to the dying man.

Richard Feynman loves Arline and impressively manages to diagnose her illness, Hodgkin's Disease, before her own doctors.

Nick Payne is an interesting performer if not necessarily a natural actor. The Art of Dying comes off because it gives the impression of an ordinary young man generously sharing his own painful experience with an audience.

The value lies in the piece's passionate but dispassionate observation of life, death and the journey between, not so much from the perspective of those dying but their ultimately helpless loved ones.

It puts together human stories and science in a satisfying fashion, never wearing its learning too heavily.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher