Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Scottish Superwomen of Science belongs to that narrow genre known as the list show. Six unsung heroes of science, all Scottish in origin, are explored one after the other. And they are unsung no longer – the show is performed largely through song, and these songs, like the scientists whose stories are told, are all by female Scots who deserve greater recognition. List shows sink or swim on two factors: how well they are performed, and how successfully the threads are tied together. This production excels at the former and gets a gentle nod for the latter.
Our host on this journey is Frances M Lynch, who also researched and wrote the show. Her singing voice is absolutely marvellous, and gives the production a truly professional sheen. Also, her speaking voice is very clear, and her occasional forays into characterisation and accents are well-measured and often quite humorous. To her discredit, she has the tendency to avoid eye-contact with her audience, which means many of her funnier lines fail to land. Even her two moments of direct audience interaction – a quick question-and-answer session and a dance routine that had something to do with trowels – are a little rushed, and she isn’t entirely comfortable embracing the proximity of her audience. Luckily, though, a song is never far away, and whenever she starts to sing, we are in totally safe hands.
The backing music is also beautifully composed, teeming with intriguing rhythms and (dis)harmonies. There is the occasional clash, where a collage of spoken word on the pre-recording makes it difficult to hear what Frances is saying over the top, but there may have been a thematic logic behind making the audience work harder at these moments.
The design is simple and effective. I particularly like the use of differently-coloured silks to represent liquids in test tubes (though these could do with being handled with a little more care for the illusion to become fully realised). There are some good prop double-images, such as when a hefty adjustable spanner is cradled like a bouquet of flowers (not sure if this was intended, but it’s what I saw). Other props are more flatly illustrative – there’s a rather lovely model of an e coli bacterium, which is onstage from the beginning, is picked up briefly during the e coli song, and then replaced and never mentioned again.
About half-way through, there is a song with a refrain along the lines of “It’s impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet”. Absolutely spot on, and it cuts both ways – to be a poet, you must embrace the mathematical complexity of language and of the world it describes. The show makes beautiful use of the poetry inherent in complex scientific terms. Even the names of diseases can trip off the tongue like the sweetest expressions of love. Good on them for not simplifying the vocabulary for the sake of pellucidity.
As a science communicator myself, I am ashamed to have heard of exactly none of the six scientists covered in depth in this show, which makes it all the more vital that their stories are aired. For every scientist that is covered, there are of course countless others that are not. In the interests of completeness, though, Frances just can’t let them go unmentioned, and most of the mini-scenes end with a list of other Scottish women who have contributed in other ways to the same field. There are some intriguing nuggets contained in these lists (a maths teacher is mentioned whose name was Annie Numbers – I’m dying to know if this can possibly be her real name). The intended effect of these lists-within-lists is presumably to awe us with the sheer quantity of quality in Scottish female science. The actual effect, after a while, is of diminishing the impact of the stories that are covered in more depth, and of overwhelming us with faceless names.
The paths followed by the women, from a variety of humbleish beginnings to a variety of successfulish accomplishments, appear for the most part to have been relatively straightforward. With a few exceptions, I was surprised that more wasn’t made of the struggles they faced being accepted in their chosen professions. And then it turns out there were difficulties aplenty, but they were all listed together in one song. The injustices of the female PhD student having to listen to her lectures from the corridor, and the woman who was finally given her professorship the day before she retired, are shocking to us now, but we also know we have a long way to go before true equality is achieved. It’s an interesting choice, lumping the difficulties they faced together like this in a single section, rather than allowing them to form the backbone of the piece.
After the bows, in Frances’ closing words, she gives us a clue as to the show’s raison d’être, and in the same fell swoop, she also reveals something of the limits to its scope. “The more we name them,” she tells us of Scottish scientists both mentioned in the show and those who aren’t, “the more people know about them.” Well, yes, that can’t be denied, but surely the more pressing matter is that by naming and hailing women scientists of the past, we open doors to women scientists of the future. This show has a great deal of heart, and embraces its subject matter with an admirable vigour and considerable skill. In casting its net so wide, it perhaps loses sight of what it is about the world that it wishes to change.
This show deserves a bigger airing, and I long to see a version done not to backing tracks but with a full choir and orchestra. And I long to see it done not in the back-room of a wine shop (though the venue have done a pretty good job of blackboxifying a not particularly suitable room), but in a purpose-built performance space. And with just a sprinkle of reshaping the material, and a dash more thought put to why we’re here and what it is we want to achieve, this could be a very special piece of work indeed.