Brighton Fringe 2015
The Marie Curie Project
Tangram Theatre Company
Venue: Otherplace at the Basement: The Pit 24 Kensington St Brighton BN14AJ
S P O I L E R A L E R T
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The Pit at the Basement is quite a small space – three levels of tiered seating in an L shape on two sides, focussing in on the acting area so it really does feel like looking down into a pit.
Hot, too. The space was jammed full of people, and it had the feel of an old-fashioned Victorian or Edwardian dissection theatre, where students would gaze down at the Lecturer as he – it would almost certainly have been a HE – explained and demonstrated some scientific principle to them.
But we had a woman. A tall woman in a long black skirt and a black blouse with a white lace collar. Shoulder length hair swept back over the ears and held with clips. A long, rather narrow face with a strong chin – the kind of face that’s generally called ‘handsome’ in a woman …
She’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie. Born Maria Sklodowska in Poland in 1869. The discoverer of Radium, along with her husband Pierre Curie, in 1898. Pierre’s there too, sitting on a stool at one side of The Pit, with his thin moustache and a black beret – he’s French, of course.
Except … This is actually John Hinton, playing Marie Curie for us. And that’s Jo Eagle on the stool, holding an accordion. This is a production about the scientific principles of radioactivity – so obviously they’re going to do it as a musical comedy. In rhyming couplets –
" You’ll have seen a lady’s name in the title of this play / And you may have thought you’d get the chance to meet her here today
But as I’ve already made patently clear – she’s dead / And I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me – instead.
I’m not really Marie Curie, and that person over there / Who’s playing an accordion is Jo, not Pierre.
But though she’s not my husband, and though I’m not her wife / Jo actually is my partner – in real life."
Da-doom, da-doom, da-doom. … You have to thump out the rhythm to get the proper sense of Hinton’s delivery, and Eagle’s accompaniment on her accordion. I’d seen the pair of them do a show about Einstein in last year’s Fringe (there’s a review of that on Fringe Review) so I already knew about the songs, with their impossibly twisted lyrics, and about how Hinton’s shows cram in a lot of important, accurate science – but manage to get it across painlessly.
John Hinton is very, very funny. He does great accents too. He did Marie with a Polish (ish) delivery; but the Curies had two daughters, Irène and Ève, and Hinton morphed into them as well. He gave Irène (the elder) a gruff Slavic voice, while Ève had a little-girly French accent. So we had the voices, the music, and … nothing else on stage at all. As the song informed us –
"We’re not in her laboratory, so therefore – I’m / Planning to invoke it with the power of mime
It makes the set more portable, and shields us from the debt / We’d be in if we’d made a realistic set."
Probably just as well. Marie Curie had do go through a tedious laboratory extraction to start with over a ton of pitchblende and end up, months later, with just a tenth of a gramme of radium. Hinton mimed the whole process for us – a repetitive sequence of stirring, pouring, heating in the laboratory oven, opening a cupboard to get out the strong sulphuric acid (Oops – nearly dropped it … a sharp chord on the accordion from Jo Eagle) to finally end up with a tiny amount of glowing radium in a test tube. It was done so believably that at the end we could almost see the tube glowing in Marie Curie’s hand.
There were two strands to the show – The chemistry of radioactivity and Marie Curie herself – and Hinton interwove them with great skill. Actually, it felt like we in the audience were doing most of the work. He talked about ‘Radioactive Decay Chains’ -the kind of topic that sent you to sleep when you were at school – but we did it with all of us being different elements or isotopes, linked together with a criss-crossing web of string. (I was Polonium 214 – I felt so important!.) It was as if Spiderman was taking the lesson – but I find that, days later, I still remember the important points. I could probably talk to you for five minutes about radioactive decay chains – but maybe another time …
We needed a bit of background to the whole history and development of atomic theory, and we got that via a lecture that Marie’s daughter Irène (also a chemist) gave, in her wonderfully gruff eastern-European voice I mentioned earlier. She talked about discovering the different types of radiation – alpha, beta and gamma, and look, I can discover them here on my computer – α β γ – If you want any more detail, though, you’ll just have to go and see the show – and that way you’ll hear all the rest of the great songs.
We learned about Marie Curie’s life, too. Pierre had been killed in a (horse-drawn) traffic accident in Paris, so I suppose that sitting on stage he was some kind of memory – that’s why he never spoke – and years later Marie went to America to receive a donation of a whole gramme of radium for use in her research. As the element’s discoverer she was feted as a great heroine – radium was being used in cancer therapy because its radiation enabled tumours to be destroyed without surgery. There was a fashion to use the element in everything, though, from toothpaste (for brighter teeth!) to ‘radium tonic’ as a patent medicine.
They used luminous paint containing radium – ‘Undark’ – to paint the figures on watch and clock faces, and a number of the painters developed cancer and eventually died. Marie Curie was horrified at this dark side (sorry for the pun) of her discovery, and Hinton used very effective lighting and mime, twisting his face and contorting his expression to show us the gradual decay of the workers’ physical condition. Lots of unsettling accordion notes from Jo / Pierre.
As with the Einstein show, all of John Hinton’s science is accurate and peer-reviewed, but he makes it so interesting and accessible that we were swept up in the sheer wonder of it all. It was fascinating, and at the end he reminded us of its relevance – one in three of us will develop some sort of cancer; and of those, two in five will be treated with some sort of radiotherapy.
I make that final tally about thirteen percent. There were around sixty people in the audience, and as we left I wondered which of them would have their lives changed as a result of the discoveries of the woman we’d just watched. A woman who, thanks to John Hinton and Jo Eagle, we felt we knew.