Flux – Greenwich Theatre, London

Devised and Directed by: The Company

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Encouraging girls to study science is still an up-hill battle with a male-dominated sector that seems to resist the many schemes designed to encourage diversity. Slow progress is being made but has the lot of female scientists really change since 1984 when theatre company Smoking Apples set their new show Flux? Co-funded by the Institute of Physics using puppetry, shadow and light effects, Flux shows that determination and skill will always win through.

Kate Hawthorn has a tedious lab job with little chance of progression. It’s the early 1980s and despite her private research into safe energy extraction from plutonium, her male colleagues take all the glory. While her personal love of music leads to love in a record shop, at work evil Charles Bagshot steals her breakthrough idea when she refuses to date him, taking her promotion and her glory.

This 60-minute show which arrives at the Greenwich Theatre as part of wider UK tour, takes a human approach to a scientific story in which a life-sized puppet named Kate is the star. Science dramas tend to get bogged down in the complexities of the problem the characters are trying to solve, often bamboozling the audience in the process. But the four-strong company keep the drama focused on professional betrayal and the love story which make this an accessible piece of theatre for all ages.

There are some pertinent and inspirational messages for the audience too, and it is notable that Kate’s speech is rarely heard. She communicates in a series of illustrative noises, speaking only when talking to herself by Dictaphone recording or in the play’s climactic resolution, emphasising how her voice has been stolen and silenced by those around her. It’s also nice to know that you can be the geekiest girl in the room and still land a cool guy in a record shop.

The staging of Flux is inventive if a little makeshift with large light boxes on wheels and projection stands covered in white paper that fit together in various jigsaw arrangements. The many scene changes are done swiftly while the 80s disco squares and swimming LEDs that provide the backdrop to Kate’s idea sequences are nicely used. The additional stick puppet silhouettes also help the story to travel to different locations.

Flux has quite a simple plot but occasionally the stage gets a little overcrowded which can be a distraction. Kate is quite cumbersome to operate, requiring a puppeteer on each hand and another to move her feet, so scenes with love-interest Alan – himself a head, torso and single arm which requires his own operator – means all four creator, Molly Freeman, Hattie Thomas, Matthew Lloyd and Anne Conde, and two puppets are needed just to complete a single hug. It’s pretty crowded and too easily breaks the spell. It’s also unclear why Charles is played by a real actor or why his own speech is also limited to verbal mutterings for much of the play.

It is always interesting to see theatre used for a particular purpose and here in appealing to a multigenerational audience using a positive puppet-female role model the Arts Council and Institute of Physics are trying a new method of encouraging more women to consider scientific careers. Well, if you can see it, you can be it and the more opportunities to show women in intelligent responsible roles the better. It may need a few more experiments to perfect its results but Flux has got is formula just about right.

Continues touring throughout the UK | Image: Contributed

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