The 'Perfect' Marie Curie

Liz Vercoe reviews Radiance, starring Cathy Tyson, at the Tabard Theatre

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Tabard Theatre, 2 Bath Road, London W4 1LW

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EastEnders meets a Theory of Something in this version of Alan Alda's play about Madame Curie, writes Liz Vercoe

A little general knowledge doesn't necessarily go a long way. Like many people I knew the scientist Marie Curie was a Pole married to a fellow scientist, Frenchman Pierre Curie, and that she discovered, I thought, radioactivity which, I thought, ultimately killed them both. So I'm very grateful to this play by Mash's original Dr Hawkeye, Alan Alda, for filling in some gaps; rather like Marie Curie wanted to do to the periodic table of elements back in the early 1900s.

Image of Cathy Tyson by Richard Davenport
Image of Cathy Tyson by Richard Davenport

The subtitle of his play is "The Passion of Marie Curie", well it should really read "passions" plural or, indeed, triple. For these are at the heart of the play. Unfortunately Alda clearly accepts that most people only have the sketchiest idea of the who, what and when in Curie history.

Consequently much of the first act comes across like the sort of rapid fire "story so far" you get in front of American series such as "24" or "Homeland": The Curies/Paris/Radium not radioctivity/madly in love/Nobel prize controversy/in with the Dreyfus set...NB Jewish connection/cliff hanger disaster.

Ok, class, now we are all up to speed.

Cathy Tyson is the perfect Madame Curie. With no wig, barely any makeup and a plain frock, she somehow manages to be every photograph or print we've seen of the woman and she dominates from the first moment on stage. It is great acting.

Pic-Richard Davenport

Pic-Richard Davenport

And the very best bit about the play is the relationship between Marie and Pierre, in which Tyson's performance is evenly matched by the excellent Clive Moore. They make the Curies so in love that, to them, stirring up seven tonnes of radioctive slurry together is merely warming up for the really hot stuff.

They rather leave the other characters out in the cold under Mark Giesser's direction. They have two sets of friends, Emile and Marguerite (John Albasiny and Zoe Simon), he a maths professor, she a writer, and Paul and Jeanne (James Palmer and Zoe Teverson), he a brilliant physicist, she his wife and a stay-at-home mother.

Act two of the play centres on the relationship between the Marie, now widowed, and Paul. Unfortunately the designer has given Paul a waxed moustache so black, shiny and pointed it looks as if he has sniffed up a stag beetle. Coupled with a pair of ever-rising eyebrows that flutter like a couple of moths caught in a up-draught it's very hard to believe any woman would throw caution to the winds in his direction. Especially when he comes out with a supposedly flirtatious scientific dialogue, something about magnetic bodies' attraction and the temperature of the apparatus?

His wife doesn't understand him. Literally. He talks physics theorems and she wants new dessert spoons and chucks the rest of the cutlery drawer at him to prove her point. Which she may well have. A dig into history tells us that in real life they were an equally working-class couple but she lacked education. Here this translates into her sounding like she should be running the Queen Vic after a day on Walford market, wot wiv knowing the odd heavy when she's got a bit of bother to sort out, while he has learnt to talk all proper like the others because he's scientific. But there's little in the play to help the audience understand what brought them together other than a flash of her cleavage. It's a missed opportunity to bring some nuanced depth to the second act.

Without this it's all kind of sensationalist. Curie suddenly can't contain herself (Tyson just about makes this believable). Despicable journalist (Stephen Cavanagh), manipulated by the jealous Walford wife, runs stories that defame the Talking Moustache and Mme Curie. The consequences are her rejection by the establishment and house being stoned and his playground-style duel.

Still, if you'd started to believe the stories that science is entirely populated by autistic-spectrum nerdy types, Alan Alda's revelations about the legendary and passionate Madame C put paid to that.

Radiance runs until February 28. For tickets, call the Box Office on 020 8995 6035 or book online.

February 6, 2015

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