Power of Invention – Soho House, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: BOLDtext Collective

Director: Janet Steele

Birmingham was at the very centre of innovation and progress at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the architects of that transformation, for example, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Joseph Priestley were based in and around the area, and an informal group, The Lunar Society of Birmingham sprang up. This counted noted industrialists, inventors and natural philosophers among its membership. However, little is known about its meetings other than they were held around the full moon – hence the name – so that members could more safely return home in the absence of streetlighting. Meetings tended to be held at members’ houses and so it is that we find ourselves at Soho House, now a museum, but previously the home of Matthew Boulton and the site of his Soho Manufactory and the Soho Mint. We’re in the company of the BOLDtext collective, a group of eight professional writers from the West Midlands who are, they say, committed to use local talent to tell stories that enable audiences to see their world in a brand new way.

Power of Invention looks at the members of the Lunar Society partly through the eyes of outsiders. It comprises eight short scenes, each written by a BOLDtext member: Liz John, Stephen Jackson, Tim Stimpson, Vanessa Oakes, Nicola Jones, Sayan Kent, Julia Wright, and Helen Kelly. It’s intended to be performed outdoors on the lawn at Soho House, though on this occasion, inclement weather forced the production indoors.

The central conceit is that the museum is to be reopened following temporary closure because of the pandemic. Preparing it are two gardeners and two cleaners. Unable to gain entrance to the building, they re-enact some imagined scenes around the membership, for example, a theological argument between Erasmus Darwin (who proposed many of the principles his grandson, Charles, would become famous for in his treatise On the Origin of Species) and Joseph Priestley, a nonconformist minister as well as a scientist. But we also learn about some of the women on the fringes of the society, Anne Boulton, daughter of Matthew, Mary Anne Galton, a leading anti-slaver who gave up sugar to support the cause, and Lady Catherine Wright, a chemist tutored by post by Lunar Society member Dr William Withering.

The writing is clear and naturalistic, albeit quite dialogue-heavy causing the production to sag a little in the middle. Nevertheless, director Janet Steel maintains a sure hand on each segment, ensuring each tale and message is clear. The members of the diverse cast, Adaya Henry, Itasha James, Simran Kular and Katy Stephens, work well together, moving in a well-choreographed pavane between and within scenes. On this occasion, there were a few uncertainties, but these did not impact noticeably on the evening.

This is a lively and informative evening, well worth catching. You’ll be entertained and also learn something about the history of Birmingham and the country as a whole.

Runs until 7 August 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Entertaining and informative

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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