Nov 06

An Experiment With An Air Pump: Theatre Review

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I have seen many plays in my life, but none have so intertwined art and science as An Experiment With An Airpump. The play by Shelagh Stevenson is a murder mystery wrapped up in the morals of science.

The play was inspired by the famous painting by Derby’s Joseph Wright of a scientist demonstrating an experiment on the powers of oxygen. He puts a small bird in a bottle and closes the lid. The bird dies – apparently. He takes off the lid and the bird miraculously recovers.

The play is set in 1799 and in 1999 on New Years Eve. Tom, and his scientist wife, Ellen have to leave the house as they can no longer afford to live there. They employ a builder to do some maintenance work and they discover a body under the sink – the bones of a female who has been there for centuries. Ellen also grasps with the morality of taking a job that evolves working with pre-embryos.

The other family are from 1799. The play shows that if history does not repeat itself, it at least rhymes, with people rioting in the streets. It also shows how far women have come. In 1799, Holly Clark plays an oppressed wife who seeks solace in alcohol. In 1999, she is the scientist, doing groundbreaking work, and funding her unemployed husband.

The play has very high production values. The set is amazing and looks expensive. The characters costumes are spot on.

There is a cast of seven in total and most actors play two parts. Mason Kayne plays Armstrong, a medical student, in 1799 and the Geordie builder in 1999. Mason is a stunningly talented young actor. He peals away the layers of Armstrong until he reveals his cold heart. A stunning tour-de-force. The only real character is Roget – who was the man who devised the thesaurus.
This play is well acted, well directed and well written. A marvellous play that is long, but feels short. An intellectual triumph and an absolute must-see.

By Shelagh Stephenson

Directed by Liisa Smith
Produced by Giant Olive Theatre

Joseph Fenwick / Tom – Steven Lello
Susannah Fenwick / Ellen – Holly Clark
Harriet Fenwick / Kate – Rae Brogan
Maria Fenwick – Billie Fulford-Brown
Isobel Bridie – Olivia Hunter
Peter Mark Roget – Noah James
Thomas Armstrong / Phil – Mason Kayne

Music composed by: Angus Moncrieff
Costume & set: Cara Newman
Lighting Design: Ciaran Cunningham
Stage Manager: Nathalie Gunzle
Image Design: Merilyn Puss
Photography: Alexander Ford