The Element In The Room is the latest instalment in Tangram Theatre's "Scientrilogy", which tackles both hard science and scientists' human stories using an energetic blend of visual humour, interactive tutorials and song. This time, it's turn-of-the-century French physicist Marie Curie who gets a quirky musical makeover, in a production that's highly entertaining yet – when you look closely enough – disturbingly dark too.
So here's the most obvious elephant in this particular room: Marie Curie, perhaps the world's most famous female scientist, is played by John Hinton, a man. Aside from wearing a dress, Hinton makes very little concession to this unusual scenario, and it's tempting to ask whether there's any real value in this particular act of gender-blind casting. Tempting, that is, until you consider the alternative: Hinton has a name and reputation for science-based shows, and it would surely be wrong to exclude Curie from his canon simply because of her chromosomes.
Hinton's show is built around Curie's discovery of the radioactive element radium: its scarcity and value forms the foundation for his plot, and an anthemic celebration of the element's glories provides the catchiest of the musical numbers. In character as Curie, Hinton sets out to remedy a few misconceptions about her discovery – explaining along the way the unexpectedly positive reason why a British cancer charity uses her name. There's some real science worked in here too, most notably during a wacky but effective demonstration of the principles of radioactive decay, which saw the whole audience quite literally roped in.
But there's another elephant, gently trumpeting in the corner. With Curie herself so determined to praise her own discovery, the dark side of the story is delegated to the famous "radium girls" – who were employed to paint the element onto luminous watch dials and, in tragic ignorance of the dangers, sometimes even used the glowing substance as make-up for their teeth. Perhaps a little more could be made of this bizarrely chilling tale, but it's a well-worked and sinister counter-point to Curie's upbeat songs, performed under cold blue light to the side of the stage.
Curie has her own tragedy too: the death of her husband Pierre, which (Hinton asserts) Marie blamed herself for in the most thoroughly unscientific of ways. There's a lot to explore here, and Pierre's own character is rather absent from the play – despite the fact that "he" is sitting in the corner the whole time, played (in a further piece of gender inversion) by Hinton's real-life wife Jo Eagle. The final goodbye between Pierre and Marie didn't tug my heartstrings quite as much as it wanted to, and I'm left wondering whether Hinton and Eagle are simply trying to cram a bit too much into an hour-long show.
But this is, in the end, a complex story, and it's to Hinton's credit that he doesn't resort to reductive tragic half-truths about the role of radiation in either Curie's death. All in all, The Element In The Room is solidly entertaining as well as gently educational. I learnt a few things about Curie's life and science, had a laugh at some offbeat physical comedy – and even now, I've got a song about radium's crystalline structure stuck hopelessly in my head.