The Marie Curie Project – Review
Otherplace at the Basement: The Pit
8th – 10th May 2015
John Hinton and Jo Eagle are on a mission to celebrate the extraordinary lives of some of history’s greatest scientists – through musical comedy. Possibly the only Fringe show with an academic advisory board, their latest production, The Element in the Room, is ‘a radioactive musical about the death and life of Marie Curie’. The show is part of the Tangram Theatre Company’s ‘scientrilogy’, which has already seen Hinton playing Einstein and Darwin. Not one to shy away from an artistic challenge, for this show he has donned a skirt to become the pioneering mother of radioactivity, Marie Curie, with Eagle providing cheeky accordion accompaniment.
Rather than attempting a full biography, the show centres on Curie’s 1921 visit to the United States, explaining along the way some of the key moments that defined her professional and personal life. We get real insight into the character of a remarkable woman whose shyness and dedication to her science (as well as her reluctance to cash in on her discoveries) meant that she was often misunderstood.
Notwithstanding quips about his masculine jawline, Hinton is fantastic as Curie and a small cast of supporting characters. He sometimes engages in quick-witted, fast-paced dialogues between three people at once, switching places at breakneck speed as accents become magnificently muddled. His trademark mad professor performance is full of energetic physical comedy; few could mime the process of radium manufacture to such comedic effect.
As with the fantastic ‘Relativitively Speaking’, the audience have a role to play in shaping the performance in small but significant ways. The more willing they are to play along, to participate, the funnier the show will potentially be. Here, they are engaged in a radioactive decay chain game, snappily titled ‘Guess into which it is atom that you actually are’, which sees the audience members assigned roles as different isotopes and getting into quite a tangle with a ball of green wool.
The Marie Curie project puts a little bit of silliness into science; it certainly doesn’t shy away from toilet humour and dreadful puns. But it also aims high in terms of the complex scientific concepts it attempts to explain. The musical numbers might be light-hearted but they deal with some pretty big themes – 2,000 years’ worth of atomic theory, for example. The play also successfully combines tongue in cheek humour and genuine emotion. The jokingly titled number ‘Just because I lived a half life’ is actually a surprisingly touching ballad about the untimely death of Pierre Curie in a carriage accident.
The Marie Curie Project Fringe shows are work in progress performances ahead of the production’s launch at Edinburgh this summer. It’s far from polished at the moment but with the team using these previews as a chance to garner audience feedback it’s likely to develop into one of the festival’s most popular shows. It seems Tangram are mining a rich seam with their scientific productions. The history of science is, after all, full of eccentric geniuses, back-stabbing colleagues and world-changing theories just waiting to be explained through the medium of musical theatre. And it works better than you might imagine. You probably never thought you’d get a song about radium stuck in your head, but you will…
*Header image by Daniel Goldman. Image has been cropped to fit.