An Experiment with an Air Pump

Shelagh Stephenson
Giant Olive Theatre Company in association with Stagespell Theatre
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

Shelagh Stephenson's play, An Experiment with an Air Pump, first seen at the Royal Exchange in 1998, offers a whole series of moral problems across two centuries, for it is simultaneously set in the same room at the end of 1799 and the end of 1999, switching from one date to the other. Indeed stretching much further, Cara Newman's set, its walls covered with anatomical drawings and notes that remind one of the fifteenth-century notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and its concern with scientific responsibility, gender roles and individual morality is just as relevant today.

The play has its origins, of course, in Joseph Wright of Derby's famous painting of a "natural philosopher" conducting an experiment in which a cockatoo is placed within a glass sphere from which the air is gradually extracted to show that the bird cannot survive without it. That was painted in 1768 and in a house in Newcastle on Tyne a similar experiment is being conducted two decades later of which an atmospheric tableau is presented to the audience at the beginning of the play. A present-day woman, she could be the author but in fact is a character in the near-contemporary episodes of the play, tells of the impression the picture made on her and stirred her interest in science.

A maid comes and helps her change her gown into one from two centuries earlier and she joins her family around the apparatus where the themes of the play are already present in Dr Fenwick and his scientific friends seeking knowledge at whoever's cost: one daughter concerned about what is happening to her pet bird; the other who has her own dreams of being a scientist; their mother, who is only an onlooker and says children must not oppose their father, and the fluttering bird.

In the parallel second-millennium story it is the wife who is the scientist, deeply involved in genetic research and deliberating on whether to accept a job in which her work will involve the use of pre-embryos, human ova surplus left over from IVF procedures, something about which her husband has profound misgivings. He is not a scientist but an English Literature academic recently made redundant, and unlikely to find another university job.

The mood is rapidly lightened as a variety of topics for public lectures are suggested and dismissed by Fenwick and his friends and later by a grotesque attempt at creating a play contrasting country Arcadia with industrial revolution, but outside a noisy mob that is smashing up his greenhouses recalls the Birmingham riots against dissenting scientist Joseph Priestly a few years earlier.

After the atmospheric opening image the first scenes of Lisa Smith's production seem rather flat but interest builds as we get a plot developing in which young doctor Thomas Armstrong sets out to flatter and seduce the Fenwick's hunchback maid Isobel, though his interest turns out to be scientific rather than sexual. Mason Kayne's Armstrong is no obvious villain; he gives him a youthful enthusiasm and at first one might imagine that he is responding to Isabel's personality and intelligence. Olivia Hunter makes her makes her a servant who keeps her place but clearly years for both knowledge and affection with tragic results. Roget, the only character drawn from history (he went on to create the famed Thesaurus) is gentler and more retiring as played by Noah James. In him we see the first opening questioning of scientific values as cold-hearted Armstrong makes him aware of where the cadavers for dissection come from.

Rae Brogan flashes with temperament as daughter Harriet, her frustrations with her play due not just to its half-hearted participants but to her boredom with literary pursuits when she would prefer scientific experiment. Feuding sister Maria adds another dimension in the letters she receives and writes to her fiancée, out in India building the Empire, and Billie Fulford-Brown gives her just as short a temper.

As Dr Fenwick Steven Lello at first seems uncertain but gets a firm grip on the character when confronted by his wife about their marriage when, as the former docile Susannah, Holly Clark delivers a moving and passionate performance.

The characters in the twentieth-century scenes, preparing to move house to make way for its conversion to a 'heritage' attraction, are more blandly written. Lello as Tom, the lecturer questioning the judgement of his geneticist wife, becomes little more than a cipher, but childless Ellen faces the dilemma of deciding what is acceptable if it allows her to pursue her scientific search and Clark as Ellen gives an equivocal reading that brings funding as well as moral questions into her decision.

The modern strand involves the uncovering of human bones, buried in the basement, and the link with the 1799 story provides something of a detective story but its unravelling turns out to be much darker than those explanations that suggest themselves. This is a play that gathers momentum as a drama and poses questions that each must answer for themselves.

"An Experiment with an Air Pump" runs at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 12th November 2011

Howard Loxton