DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Live Reading: An Experiment with An Air Pump – Live Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer: Shelagh Stephenson

Director: Jack McNamara

Debuting at The Royal Exchange Theatre in 1998, Stephenson’s play was inspired by the painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in the air pump” by Joseph Wright. It is seen as an homage to Stoppard’s time-shifting play Arcadia and takes place in the same Newcastle house in two time periods, both New Year’s Eves, in 1799 and 1999. It juxtaposes the past and the present, science and the arts, men and women and the social classes, each time as society stands on the brink of a new century. It was performed here as a one-off reading with stage directions read out to fill the gaps in the visual.

Initially there is a description of the painting, as one of the characters from the latter period explains how the painting inspired her as a scientist. Then in 1799 in a grand house in Newcastle, Joseph Fenwick the scientist is performing the titular experiment, pumping out air to prove that the bird cannot survive in a vacuum. Despite his daughter’s fears for her pet, he stops the experiment in time for the bird to survive.

Fenwick is staging New Year’s Eve lectures and is dissatisfied with all the proposals, as too staid or uninspiring. Performed by TV, film and theatre star Roger Allam, Fenwick is an inspiring scientist and a reformer by inclination, postulating that the monarchy is a moribund institution that will undoubtedly be ended once universal suffrage has been brought in. This brings wry chuckles from the audience.

He is surrounded by his family, with one daughter who wishes to be a scientist and never to marry, whilst the other daughter is all too keen to marry and her letters to and from her errant fiancé in India punctuate the piece. His wife Susannah he alternately belittles or ignores and her escalating discontent, fuelled by brandy, erupts into an unpleasant ‘scene’, leading to his explanation of how his passion for her beauty misled him into thinking she had other virtues.

Set against a backdrop of rioting over food prices, the group, also including two brilliant young scientists, Roget (of Thesaurus fame) and Armstrong, debate many issues as Fenwick’s daughters and Isobel, their highly intelligent, hunchbacked maid are trying, unsuccessfully, to put on a play. Armstrong is fiercely inquisitive, happy to use snatched bodies for medical research, whilst Roget has more scruples. Armstrong becomes fascinated by the maid’s deformity and sets out to seduce her in order to get her into bed and examine her back. His unscrupulous, insistent pursuit of her ultimately ends in tragedy.

In the modern-day section, the wife of the house is now the scientist, her work with pre-embryos left over from IVF treatment, forming the basis of a moral dilemma, echoing the body-snatching issue in the earlier period. Her husband is an out-of-work literary professor, with concerns about where the research may lead. These concerns are echoed by Dean Bone’s credulous Geordie workman, who provides comic relief as well as raising some real, if naïve, questions.

A box of bones, making up an incomplete female torso, is found in the kitchen during remodelling, which Allam’s professor finds profoundly disquieting, and though the protagonists are not aware of this, the audience ultimately come to understand these are the remains of the tragic maid.

This is an ambitious, and complex play, which lends itself well to this form of performance, allowing the audience to concentrate on the dialogue and its series of moral debates. The issues covered by the play are particularly timely and this reading highlighted that the play may be due a full-scale revival. Guitar accompaniment from Giuseppe Lomeo was a valuable counterpoint to the acting and truly enhanced the performance.

Throughout, Roger Allam and Rebecca Saire showed well-developed characterisations and a fluent and expressive control of the wordy and multi-layered script. Amongst the other actors, Georgia Silver stood out as Isobel, all fierce intelligence and vulnerability. Whilst the fact it was a reading deprived the audience of the shocking visual conclusion to her role, her playing delivered the required impact.

Reviewed on 15th April 2023.

The Reviews Hub Score

A Fascinating Experiment

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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