An Experiment with an Air Pump
Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 14 - 17 July 2010
by Shelagh Stephenson
An Experiment with an Air Pump was written before the millenium. It celebrates achievements in medical science both in 1799 and 1999 - facing back and forward into a new century. The evocative 18th century painting by Joseph Wright upon which the title is based took us all, with Anna Renton-Green's brilliantly-delivered opening speech, to the frontiers of experimentation two centuries ago. Shelagh Stephenson's play operates on many levels at once - brilliantly visually represented with the impressive trompe l'oeil set at the Unicorn Theatre: a pictorial metaphor.
Stephenson's powerful writing is extremely demanding with longish, technically-complex speeches full of scientific data. The cast rose to that challenge flawlessly, allowing us to be entertained and instructed through an exciting plot that touched several theatrical genres at once; the farce of a play within a play; the drama of false seduction; the thrilling on-stage murder and complex characters taken from two historical periods. These were skillfully interwoven to present us all with some fundamental ethical dilemmas raised by cutting edge research: whether we lose sight of the sanctity of human bodies (for dissection), or teeter on the brink of eugenics facing the frontiers of the genome.
A white knuckle ride for many of us, made entertaining by humour and exotic characters. Anna Renton-Green played a un-liberated, brilliant woman living in the frustrating shadow of her husband Joseph Fenwick (Keith Hales), who is totally unaware of the patriarchal position he holds. Their necessary clashes were well-orchestrated throughout and sensitively enough played to give us empathy with both parties, though one clearly drank too much and the other talked too much! John Crowley's creepy, duplistic Armstrong was such a huge contrast to his avuncular comedy as Phil that I had to check my programme to make sure it was the same actor. Both roles were a triumph. So, too was Michael Ward's gloriously verbose Roget, which was consistently credible throughout. His duologues with Liz Adams were charming to listen to. Liz, though beaten at times by attempting a Scots accent, played family maid Isobel exceptionally sensitively. She needed to, for on our reaction to her tragedy, much of the emotional power of the play depends. I, for one, shed tears for her at the end and I know I was not alone. Issy Knowles' two characters were also opposite ends of a spectrum, but she returned credible performances as a silly younger sister and a super-competent modern businesswoman - alternating the roles with no trace of overlap. Her scenes with the fiery dominant Harriet, played by Monica Nash, were a joy to watch.
This was more than competent theatre; it was superb, mind-broadening entertainment: a well-made play, very well put together. Some fine direction made all that possible thanks to Malcolm Ross's deft touch. As usual the company back-up of costumes, effects, props and design put Abingdon Drama Club in the Premier League of amateur theatre.
Gwilym Scourfield - 16/7/2010