In Newcastle, 1799, radical physician Joseph Fenwick (Steven Lello) is looking wide-eyed into the next century while desperately trying to keep his dysfunctional family under control. In the same house in 1999, Ellen (Holly Clark) is having an ethical dilemma on whether she should take a job experimenting with pre-embryos. But just what exactly is the link between the past and the present that has lain unnoticed beneath the kitchen floor for two hundred years?
Closing the Gaea Festival, a showcase for the work of female writers and directors, Shelagh Stephenson’s play takes a look at the tension between ethics and progress. Rather than picking apart specific moral sticking points involved in certain practices, it takes a much wider view. However, Stephenson also throws in some sweet diversions of character, a charming soft humour, and an enigmatic whodunnit throughout the debate. These stop the narrative from becoming too dry and academic, and serve as nice framing devices that push the flow of the piece.
The dialogue and narrative hide a much deeper depth than they let on, and there are some very clever subtleties in the play’s construction, such as symmetry and asymmetry of plot elements. These are also reflected in Cara Newman’s lavish yet simple set. The walls are pasted with an eerie collage of old anatomical diagrams, which, like the text itself, contains detailed nuance and innuendo behind its aesthetic appeal. Angus Moncrieff also provides some excellent and inconspicuous original music that really punctuates certain moments, but never feels out of place.
The first half, although clever, is a little slow. Some of the more verbose dialogue takes too long in getting its point across: with little actually happening on stage apart from speech it’s easy to become more involved with Newman’s set rather than the actual play. Also, the cast start the play a little unsure, making dialogue wooden and stilted. However, this is something that quickly disappears as soon as the mystery element is introduced. From this point onwards both play and performers become more confident of themselves, and the energy and level of engagement really picks up.
After an intriguing end to the first act, the second delivers more compelling theatre. The drama accelerates to a climax, making for an astonishing watch. Olivia Hunter gives a standout performance as hunchbacked house servant Isobel, and really conveys the meticulous intelligence in her character – a manipulated and tormented woman in the shadows of middle class society – extraordinarily well. Clark, too, gives a strong performance not only as present-day Ellen, but as past Susannah Fenwick; a painfully neglected and increasingly desperate wife.
One particular reference to an Arcadian idyll may prompt some audience members to draw canny parallels with the celebrated work by Tom Stoppard that plays on similar themes. But even if Stephenson’s play seems like an emulation to some, it holds itself together very well in its own right. A provocative and captivating piece of theatre with firm intelligence and heart behind it.
An Experiment with an Air Pump plays at the Giant Olive Theatre, London, NW5 2ED, until 12 November 2011. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). Too book call 08444 771 000 or visit www.giantolive.com.