Welcome to the UN conference on anti-microbial resistance! We are all familiar with antibiotics, and the worry about them becoming ineffective – but do we know the story behind them? This musical travels from the trenches of the First World War through to the present day, to give us a look at the history of antibiotics.
We see soldiers dying in the trenches and army hospitals, as antiseptic agents fail to treat deeper infections – and meet Fleming, who is working to change that. Then the action skips forward to his professorship in London, messy benches and unclean habits leading by chance to his famous discovery of the effect of Penicillium notatum. For the next decade we see him struggle to get his discovery investigated and refined until finally a “wonder drug” is born.
Setting the piece at the UN conference is a clever idea; it offers an excuse to narrate and introduce the most important facts, as well as providing a structure that allows the action to jump between important scenes so the songs and dances shine within the context. Similarly well done, the projection onto a screen provides a timeframe for the action, listing dates and other important facts. It is also well used to provide animated scenery – particularly the scene featuring a man scratched by a rose thorn, where it mirrors beautifully the action during the first attempt to treat a human subject with penicillin extract. The production's ambition doesn't quite match the video technology available, however, as there a lot of shadows and unintended projection onto the performers.
With five live musicians, and a large well-voiced chorus, this is one of the bigger shows on the Fringe. The chorus are very well used, singing clearly and giving the action a sense of scale, but their movement did occasionally detract from the main action – either through poor blocking or through the actors’ voices being lost beneath the sound of so many people moving. As a result, while the narrator works well generally placing the scenes, unless you already know the stories being presented it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening – particularly when the main characters are hidden in the centre of the chorus.
And it seems at times the piece is unsure who it is aiming at. It uses full medical words throughout, yet the history is very much simplified, with the company is advertising trips to primary schools. They certainly aim to have a wide appeal but do not always succeed: it can be hard to follow the action, and some of the sung exposition was too hard to hear.
That said, this show is a very informative, engaging and energetic retelling of one of the most significant medical advancements of recent times. It makes full use of an excellent chorus to provide a satisfying visual and musical interpretation, albeit that the main characters would benefit from being louder and more easily distinguished in the crowd. This show packs a lot into the time, and is as enjoyable as it is educational.