Reviews Physics World  October 2017
(Jane Hobson)

Science at the Fringe

Andrew Glester visits this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and seeks out science-themed shows

“Free musical comedy”, “New play about sharks”, “Science comedy”. The tenth flyer thrust into my hand as I wind my way along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile boldly tells me that Mars Actually has won an “Origins Award for Outstanding New Work”. It’s also the first flyer at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival, which has been running for the past 70 years – that catches my attention.

Mars Actually is the new play from Maria Askew, Frode Gjerløw and Simon Maeder. The trio, collectively known as Superbolt Theatre, make plays with a homespun aesthetic, which are underpinned by their ability to create theatre that explores the human condition. At the Fringe, they alternate nightly between Mars Actually and another original play – Jurassic Parks. A love for the best of science fiction pervades both works – Jurassic Parks is a beautiful play centred around a family gathering to watch the Stephen Spielberg classic…at a memorial service. It’s an homage to the film and explores the intricacies of family relations with a nod to chaos theory.

As for Mars Actually, it has more in common with the book and film The Martian than it does the Richard Curtis movie Love Actually. As I wander into the theatre, I notice the actors, already in character, greeting and chatting with the audience as they file in and so we are immediately dropped into their world. The play follows three characters, new to planet Earth, who are excited to tell us what they’ve learned since arriving from their Mars colony, where they have spent all their lives until this point. It’s a theatrical ploy common to science fiction, enabling us to cast fresh eyes on humanity.

Today’s political landscape is fertile ground for comedians and theatre makers. In Mars Actually, the megalomaniac founder of the Mars colony stridently barks “make Mars great” and “you’re fired” at a series of characters making helpful suggestions. It could have been trite but in these hands, it’s a humorous and wonderfully delivered sequence. It’s a rare moment of unambiguous theatre in the play. In any case, the target of that particular scene prefers things less nuanced.

Colonization is presented in the play as a patriarchal pursuit to conquer something, just because it is there. As someone fascinated by the Moon landings and today’s plans for Mars, I found myself looking at things from a different, difficult angle. Do our plans for the colonization of other worlds parallel the way we treat each other? Good comedy theatre of this sort, like classic science fiction, is not only entertaining, but also poses important questions and makes you think.

Superbolt’s skilful combination of physical theatre and comedy is evident throughout both plays. The way they transform from small children to old men to velociraptors, using nothing but their own bodies, is spellbinding and hilarious. They are equally adept at transforming props. For those of us who love rocket science, the three-stage separation of a clarinet is surely one of the most joyous moments of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

I also caught award-winning comedian and actor Samantha Baines’ Fringe offering 1 Woman, a High-Flyer and a Flat Bottom. Her love for science permeates the show, which explores some of the “lost women of science”. On stage, the story goes that Baines saw physicist-turned-presenter Brian Cox on TV and designed her 2016 show to impress him. Off stage, she tells me that her inspiration came more from her role as a dying physics teacher in a play. That, combined with the BBC TV show Wonders of the Universe, ignited a fascination for space science. Researching for those shows, Baines read about a host of women whose role in space science has been less prominent or less publicly celebrated than their male colleagues. 1 Woman, a High-Flyer and a Flat Bottom brings three of those women’s stories to sold out audiences at this year’s Fringe.

Conspiratorial, self-deprecating delivery endears her to the viewer, and it becomes almost inescapable to join in her wide-eyed wonder at the universe, our place within it and the scientists who explore it. Periodically, Baines dons a scarf and heads to “poetry corner” where she reads self-penned witty poems, which also serve to punctuate the show. Baines’ father recently died, and moments in the show when she talks about him and reflects upon her loss add a balance and poignancy to the piece.

The three scientists Baines chose were Margaret E Knight, an inventor; Lilian Bland, an inventive aviator; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Ride is the most well-known of the trio, but Baines’ audiences are not predominantly science curious. Even those who know Ride’s story well will probably find out something new about her in the show. Baines tells me she hopes to ignite an interest and if someone goes away and reads a book on the topic thanks to her show, then she’d be delighted.

If Superbolt’s aim is to make you think and Baines wants to entertain you, then Matthew Partridge wants you to learn something. Fibre Optic Sensors Can Save the World! is his show, which aims to bring his research in engineering photonics to the public. The show is educational, packed full of fascinating insight into the invention and uses of fibre optics. Partridge’s knowledge on the subject is exceptional, demonstrated by the show’s format. He tells the history of fibre optics, stopping often to ask the audience to challenge him with real-world problems that he must solve using the technology.

Everything from dentistry to getting to work on time is thrown at Partridge, who is a researcher at Cranfield University, and he expertly fields the questions, thinking on the spot to provide inventive solutions that serve to impress and inform the audience. I came away with a far deeper appreciation of what fibre optics can do for our lives today. The only problem is that just 11 other people saw the show. Partridge tells me that the average Fringe audience is four people, which is not entirely surprising as competition for a crowd is fierce at Fringe. But if comedy shows and theatre are to serve the role of communicating science to the public, then there needs to be more than a dozen audience members.

Superbolt and Baines played to sold out audiences of around 100 viewers day after day throughout August. Pinning down why so few turned up to Fibre Optics Can Save the World! is difficult. Fibre optics is far more interesting than people may know and Partridge is an engaging and impressive presenter. My concern is that they need to see him do the show before they know how interesting it will be. Among the sea of posters and adverts for shows in Edinburgh, it can be hard for the science to stand out.