Edinburgh Fringe 2015
The life story of ‘the most inspirational woman in science’, the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields of science. (she’s also the only person to win in multiple sciences, and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, full stop). This follows a remarkable woman on her quest to collect a gram of radium from the US president.
This is in practical terms a one woman show, although strictly speaking the woman is played by a man, and there’s actually another man in support, and that man is played by a woman. Playing an accordion. With us so far? Despite the many science and history facts scattergunned throughout the hour, that’s about as confusing as things will get. It’s the life story of Marie Curie, interspersed with songs, direct addresses to the audience, quickfire lectures, and quite brilliant mime.
John Hinton plays Marie Curie, as well as an American journalist who befriends her, her own daughters and many others. While his physicality is never about showmanship, it’s subtly impressive: three women conversing with one another while looking overboard a boat, or two characters having a conversation while they swap places: each standing or lying down at different times. What looks (and, admittedly, sounds) simple is actually quite sharply and cleverly defined.
This is a fun hour of science that will provoke a strong reaction in the crowd. At one point, the entire audience becomes a version of the periodic table, and we learn things we may have forgotten since high school via the medium of a ball of wool. We’d call it string theory, except that’s an entirely different science altogether.
In terms of the kids in your company, a bright and curious eight year old will have a lot of fun with this. It’s true that a lot of the facts and dates will fly too quickly over their heads, but let’s face it, that’s going to be the case for you, as well. Having said that, there were a couple of kids at this performance who were at least half that age who were interested and engaged throughout. There are plenty of very clever jokes thrown away with barely a pause for a peer review, like the musical stings and the piping of Curie’s dress.
What really sells the show is John Hinton’s delight in his subject matter. Like an excellent guest on a Radio 4 programme or TED Talk who gets disproportionately excited about spores and fungi, he speaks about Marie Curie with an almost fanboy’s love: clearly thinking of her as extraordinary woman, whilst flawed. Like the result of working with a highly volatile material for your entire life, his glee is genuinely infectious, and will certainly result in 67 protons (three times over).
Like a gram of radium, The Element In The Room has an unexpected and surprising weight to it: the script doesn’t shy away from Curie’s often prickly relationship with others, as well as her complicated relationship with radium itself – managing to indirectly both cause and cure cancers. There’s a beautiful song late in proceedings that’s a hymn to Curie’s deceased husband that operates on a geeky pun that we don’t have the heart to give away here. Perhaps the clearest result you’d hope for from a show with songs is to still be humming the tunes hours later, and that’s definitely the case here. Go see: you’ll be radiating joy.