Review: Flux, Greenwich Theatre

With a dully radiating stage, and a rather disturbingly lifelike full-sized puppet, award-winning theatre company Smoking Apples’s latest production pulses into the Greenwich Theatre. Exploring the struggle faced by women in the field of science, paradoxically this show’s vagueness and strange focus could be considered counter-intuitive to its aims.

Visually the show is stunning. Some very clever puppet work mixed with a truly magical set by Matthew Lloyd makes for a very professional and pleasing production. Set in the 1980s it follows the life of a young female physicist, Kate, as she finds love and professional success against the prevalent patriarchy. On the surface, this show is a knockout. The set, especially, is a big draw: light up boxes move seamlessly around to create different places with ease while the bright coloured lights create some lovely visualisation of Kate’s battles with particle physics. This show looks stupendous and is well crafted by all involved; there are real moments of beauty and connection and all this is set to a wonderful score by Jon Ouin. But what’s beneath this polished exterior? Is the glowing lump hiding a dark secret?

Shockingly, yes. The first problem is the rather bizarre choice to have no spoken words until Kate confronts a conference to expose her sleazy plagiarising male colleague. I understand the idea of only giving her a voice when she takes back ownership of her work but practically this means a lot of very strange and irritatingly melodramatic sound effects from the team operating the puppet. This harks back to children’s theatre and cheapens the whole experience.This leads us on quite nicely to my main issue, the show’s relationship to its female protagonist and the field of real historic science. The show is left rather open-ended about whether this is a historical biopic or not. Claiming to be based on the “work of female scientists” but focusing on a very particular scientific problem, we are never sure what we are watching. Lise Meitner’s real life is almost identical to the story, as she was overlooked for the Nobel prize for her work with discovering nuclear fission. One small problem is that that was almost 50 years earlier than the setting of this piece. Although in some blurbs this is mentioned by the company, the piece itself doesn’t make this clear at all. This muddying of historical water is confusing if not dangerous for those who are not willing to research the actual reality within this story. The setting of the 80s mixed with questions answered in the late 30s is an inexcusable trifling with the continuum of the progression of female scientific discovery. Secondly, the focus on Kate’s love life and landing a boyfriend is framed as almost as important as her scientific discoveries. I am not saying that feminist ideas exclude romantic ones but it’s an odd choice. Linked to the play’s relationship to the real story of Meitner (which is surely well worth telling) the play’s surface of gleaming ability hides a contradictory interior.

It is difficult for a show to be consistently effective both at a deeper level and also on a simply practical one but I know which I prefer. A good idea badly executed although not as impressive on the night can provide much more mental stimulation than a perfectly danced but badly thought-out piece. With shadow play, puppets and technical skill, Flux blinds us to the problems that lie within the concept and, although enjoyable, the message is lost somewhere in the whizzing particles.

Flux played the Greenwich Theatre until 16 June. For more information, see the Greenwich Theatre website.