“well acted and directed, and O’Mahony and Stevens draw the audience in with plenty of eye contact, and easy charm”
Fireworks, by Alex Robins, about the search for the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider, sounds like an intriguing proposition for a play. Robins developed the project with assistance from Plymouth Fringe, and the Plymouth Theatre Royal. His cast and crew, (director Jack Bradfield, dramaturg Jim Newton, and performers Gráinne O’Mahony and James Murphy-Stevens), helped Robins get the script in shape. And let’s not forget the guidance from Plymouth University’s Mathematical Sciences group, regarding the search for the Higgs boson, aka The God particle. Robins takes this quest and turns it into a drama to explain why theoretical physicists—and conspiracy theorists—are so hung up on Higgs and his boson.
Fireworks begins with a series of mini lectures about the standard model in theoretical physics by River, a young scientist, played very convincingly by O’Mahony. Her opposite number is Drew (Stevens), a young man obsessed with conspiracy theories such as the Mandela Effect, which suggests that the reason people remember facts, or events, differently, is that we are all in parallel universes in a “multiverse”. Running on different timelines, these universes sometimes intersect, and that is where the confusion begins. Not surprisingly, genuine scientists despair of ideas like these floating around on the world wide web. But anyway. While River spends her days explaining quarks to her ever dwindling pool of students, Drew plots to break into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland to stop his universe disappearing when it is switched on in search of the Higgs boson.
Director Bradfield presents the action in the Cavern at VAULT Festival, with the audience seated on either side of the performance area. Set within this area, is a circular space with a ring of blinking lights. Every time an actor steps into the circular space, the lights change colour. The lights are also moving, sometimes at speed, meant to represent subatomic particles as they accelerate within the Collider. It’s a simple, but effective device. What is not so effective is the writing. Robins, for the most part, presents his drama as two monologues. It’s a good idea in theory (since his characters not only represent opposing points of view, but, from Drew’s perspective at least, different times) that doesn’t work that well in practice. There’s just too much exposition needed to clue the audience in. The connection between Drew and River doesn’t emerge in any concrete fashion until the end, and hence feels tacked on. Even the explosive ending—which I won’t describe in detail, because, spoilers—doesn’t integrate all that well into the rest of the play.
Nevertheless, Fireworks is well acted and directed, and O’Mahony and Stevens draw the audience in with plenty of eye contact, and easy charm. So watch this production without fear—you (and the rest of the audience) will exit the VAULT Festival in exactly the same universe that you entered.
“a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances”
Can The Tempest—a play full of echoes of Shakespeare’s imminent retirement from a rich and successful theatrical life—be played in a small theatre, and on a pocket handkerchief sized stage? It turns out that it can. It can, that is, if you have Michael Pennington for your Prospero, supported by a cast of talented actors speaking with understanding of a text that contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. And it should, if you have a director (Tom Littler) who knows how to put on big plays in small spaces.
You might be forgiven for being sceptical. This Tempest demands work from the audience, beginning with a search to find the venue among all the clothing establishments in Jermyn Street, long the haunt of London’s haute monde. But when you eventually discover the modest entrance, near Waterstones, and descend into the performance space, you will be charmed. The stage is literally tucked into a corner, and designers Neil Irish and Anett Black make the most of it by creating a wall of curving shelves that contain all the flotsam and jetsam of Prospero’s past life as Duke of Milan. Add to that a couple of curtains to create additional spaces, and you can conjure up an enchanted isle quite effectively. Black and Irish were inspired by the experiences and art of Gauguin in Tahiti in the design—hence a lovely sketch of distant vistas on one of the curtains, and a medley of different cultural influences in the costume designs as well. Ariel’s costume and make up stands out in this respect. The costumes are all cleverly made from bits of cloth that could have been washed up from the shipwreck that brought Prospero and his daughter Miranda to the island. Add to that William Reynolds’ lighting design, haunting music and sound by Max Pappenheim (always essential in The Tempest), and you see an unexpectedly rich canvas on which the production has been created. But this is not easily apparent. You have to take the time—to look, and to listen—to all the island’s voices.
Watch for several innovations. The opening scene of the storm at sea that brings Prospero’s enemies to his shore is cut—instead it is Prospero who speaks the lines while holding a ship tossing and turning in his hands. It’s an effective way of emphasizing the fact that Prospero is a magician who has conjured up the storm. When Miranda enters, the audience is as ready as she is, to hear the story of how father and daughter arrived on the island. There is some judicious doubling. Tam Williams plays both Caliban and Ferdinand—and it works because Williams plays Caliban with a white canvas hood over his head. This device makes Caliban an oddly sympathetic character right from the start, and Williams’ skilled performance means that it takes a while to realize that one actor is playing both roles. Peter Bramhill doubles as Sebastian, Ferdinand’s uncle, with the comic role of Trinculo. Richard Derrington doubles as Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, with the drunken butler Stephano. It is a treat to see Lynn Farleigh take on the role of Gonzalo, and she brings a rare clarity and power to his lines.
Whitney Kehinde, as Ariel, is a wonderful sprite with just the right amount of enthusiasm for her work, coupled with fear that Prospero will not honour his promise and release her when her tasks are done. Kehinde is a genuine triple threat and a talent to watch. In fact, the only major weakness in this production is the lack of chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda, despite the best efforts of Tam Williams (without a hood) and Kirsty Bushell (Miranda). And it is the greatest pleasure to watch Michael Pennington, as Prospero, literally hold the whole production in the palm of his hand. He manages to bring off both the power and vulnerability of the role in ways that allow us to maintain sympathy for the character, while questioning Prospero’s more morally dubious actions.
For clarity of insight into Shakespeare’s last great play, take a chance on the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production. It’s a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances.