Are you a scientist? Babies all are, says performer John Hinton; they experiment with whatever they can get their hands on, learn how things work through trial and error, and always want to know more about the world around them. Cue this eclectic musical jaunt through the alphabet of science, which aims to kindle the same unreserved interest in children and adults alike.
Diving in with A for Atom, and continuing all the way through to Z for Zero, Hinton delivers a brief science-themed musical ditty linked to each letter. Each of the twenty-six is different; not just because they tackle diverse topics across biology, physics and chemistry, but also because Hinton brings out an alphabetically-appropriate instrument or musical style. For example, the dinosaur-themed Jurassic Jive is followed by some karaoke on the Kazoo. Gloriously intricate lyrics and a few audacious rhymes complete a tightly-packed hour which demands your full attention but rewards it with plenty of offbeat humour.
Hinton is relaxed on stage, and puts his audience equally at ease. Inviting us to join in with in many of his tunes, his enthusiasm is infectious and his demeanour likeable – successfully carrying us through what is at heart an hour-long experiment in musical form. Just when you think you've got the measure of it, a new letter triggers a new direction for music and science alike.
Keeping us on track, projected animations count off the letters and offer crib-sheets for some of the more densely-worded songs. Light-hearted cartoons deliver further humour. Make no mistake though, the science is real – and there's some genuine education being delivered among the tomfoolery.
Not all the jokes entirely land, and more than once I found myself the only one chuckling at what – to me – was a supremely funny line. On reflection, I wonder whether Hinton has cast his net too broadly; he works hard to encourage the kids in the audience, yet some of his humour takes degree-level knowledge to fully understand. Perhaps one day he'll spin off a full-on geek version, because in a later slot and with a little bit of alcohol consumed, I could see the more in-jokey of his lyrics bringing the house down.
Quirkiness can only take you so far, however, and I'd personally have welcomed a couple more serious numbers to break up the mood and pace. Rich material like Hinton's needs a little space to breathe. Structuring the show around a strict A-Z also poses challenges, at times calling for inconvenient trade-offs. The Quantum Quickstep, for example, would have made a perfect ice-breaker – but of course it doesn't feature until we reach the letter Q.
Ultimately though, the rules Hinton has set himself enhance, not diminish, his show's creative spark. Versatile work with a range of styles adds an extra dimension of interest. While you watch, you're encouraged to note down the instruments you spot on the back of the programme (keeping up the academic theme, you can mark your own work at the end). "Xylophone" is predictable, but the answers for most letters are intriguing and surprising – and the game is a clever way of helping us focus on the show.
Your own background will very much inform your response to Ensonglopedia; for me it was a geeky treat, but I suspect those who studied arts more than science might struggle with its torrent of concepts and themes. Zealous newbies and seasoned scientists alike will find lots to enjoy, however, in this offbeat and thoroughly enjoyable show.