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Review: Uncaged Monkeys in Birmingham

6 May

This week saw the start of the Uncaged Monkeys tour – the first ever national science tour to be let loose on the British public. Robin Ince (co-presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’) is the host, and he’s joined by Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Helen Arney, the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’, Brian Cox, and a smattering of other sciencey people over the different dates.

A tribe of monkeys (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

I watched the Birmingham leg last night at the Alexandra Theatre, a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The theatre was completely sold out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it’s the Brian Cox effect – two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars when he came onstage. Either way, it felt a long way from my undergraduate physics days.

The Uncaged Monkeys in cardboard cutout form (

The master of ceremonies, Robin Ince, is a very, very funny man. I’d quite happily pay to see him perform his own stand-up show. But last night was all about the science, so on with the boffins. First up was Ben Goldacre, who gave a talk based on his ‘Bad Science’ book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. A lot more fun than it sounds, especially when he laid into TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith and talked about signing up his dead cat, Hettie, for the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

As expected, Brian Cox did the wide-eyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’ thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man seems to have a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers, and all credit to someone who can explain both relativity and the Standard Model in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He also played this clip of Carl Sagan describing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth – really beautiful, humbling stuff.

Simon Singh kept on the astronomy/cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen, of the Arney variety, provided an awesome musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and Countdown presenter envy. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.

Simon Singh and the glowing gherkin (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

Science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. OK, so the production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin), but the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mind-blowing. Or maybe that was just the effect of Prof Cox’s velvety tones…



24 Jan

Beginning tomorrow (25th January) at London’s National Theatre is a new play, ‘Greenland’, that explores the issues around climate change. According to the website blurb, the production “draws together several separate but connected stories into a fast-paced and provocative new play.” The play was co-written by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, who spent six months researching the topic in the worlds of  science, politics, business and philosophy. A series of events have also been organised in tandem with the production.

Recently, climate change-related art and media projects have been cropping up all over the place – the Nordic RETHINK and British Cape Farewell initiatives are two examples. ‘Climate change theatre’, however, has seemed slow to get going. I guess it can’t be easy to create dramatic tension when the subject of the play is essentially a statistical trend that evolves on (at least) decadal timescales. Nevertheless, this article highlighted a recent spate of green plays that received a good critical response, so maybe it won’t be too long before we see a certain Lloyd Webber soundtracking the collapse of Larsen B.

Projects such as ‘Greenland’ open up new audiences to the big climate debate, and that can only be a good thing. Climate change is probably the area of science that stirs up the most controversy in the public domain. Ironically, it is also one of the topics that scientists most agree on…a study by Anderegg et al. (2010) found that “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

This gap between scientific agreement and societal bewilderment is complex (maybe a question for psychologists?). However, scientists are increasingly being encouraged to come down from their ivory towers and communicate their results. After all, the general public’s understanding of climate change is formed by the media, not by specialist studies in scientific journals. Climate controversies such as the ‘Climategate‘ hullabaloo at the University of East Anglia demonstrate how the media can influence the public perception of scientists (and their work).

So hopefully this new play at the National Theatre will get people excited, help switch focus back to the important issues, and ignite some interesting debates. And hopefully the real life climate change drama won’t end up as a tragedy. Performances of ‘Greenland’ run from January 25th – April 2nd 2011.

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