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Interview with John Hinton – Tangram Theatre Company

After the success of last year’s performance at the Dulwich Festival, Tangram Theatre are back with the third and final instalment of their comedy musical scientrilogy ‘The Element in the Room: A Radioactive Musical Comedy about the Death and Life of Marie Curie’. Taking place at the Great Hall in Alleyn’s School on Saturday 13th May all the family is welcome to come and join in!

We spoke to John Hinton, one of the founders and performers of the Tangram Theatre Company about the show and what audiences can look forward to from the performance.

What can the audience expect from this performance?

They can expect to learn the fascinating real-life story of one of the greatest women in science. They can expect humour. They can expect cross-dressing (in both directions – I play Marie Curie and my wife Jo plays her husband Pierre). And they can expect some beautiful music played on accordion, including the catchiest song about radium there has ever been.

This performance focuses on the life of Marie Curie and is the third part of Tangram Theatre’s Scientriology, following on from performances about Darwin and Einstein. What is it about these three characters that inspire you?

I have been a fan of Charles Darwin and his theories ever since childhood, so he was an obvious choice for a first show. Albert Einstein is such a colourful character and a joy to play, and part of the challenge in creating that show was to get my own head round his theories sufficiently to be able to communicate them to an audience. With Marie Curie, it’s more about telling the untold story of an incredibly important but often misunderstood scientist. Curie has a wonderful attitude to science – that it should be shared by all, and that it is not owned by the scientists who did the work in discovering it. We can take inspiration from this outlook in every walk of life.

Have you always been interested in science?

Absolutely! As babies, we are all scientists. We all conduct experiments to piece together the world around us. Some of us never lose the bug, and such people become scientists. Some of us just look at the scientists and go, “Wow! How did you do that?” I’m one of those people.

Describe your process of working. How do your ideas evolve into productions?

This process has developed a long way over the course of the three shows. I wrote the Darwin show largely on my own, and then reworked it with the director Daniel Goldman. Daniel and I, together with musician Jo Eagle, developed the Einstein show together from the outset – I did the writing, Jo did the music, and Daniel shaped it the material with us at every stage. For this third show about Curie, the three of us had an even more integrated approach, and much of the material was created through improvisations with the three of us. Jo and I are now married, and Daniel is godfather to our daughter.

How do you get the balance right between science and education and putting on a good show?

It is absolutely vital to us that we get our science right. We get help from a team of scientists at the University of Sussex, who help us devise ways of communicating these complex ideas to an audience, and then fact-check the scripts when they’re done. While the productions are educational, they are not so-called ‘Theatre in Education’; even more important to us than teaching people about science is that we put on a good show that make people glad they decided to leave the house and come sit on a chair in a dark room for an hour. We hope you’ll walk away knowing a whole lot more stuff about Marie Curie and radioactivity than you ever thought possible. We also hope that you’ll have a belly-laugh or two, feel refreshed and reinvigorated, and find yourself singing ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah Radium!’ every day for the next few years.

What do you think Marie Curie would have made of your production?

Ooh, that’s a very interesting question. I think she would have been very pleased to see scientific knowledge being communicated, and she may well have laughed at the way we portray some of the characters from her life. However, this is not an exercise in hero-worship; Marie Curie had character flaws, as we all do, and we don’t shy away from them. It’s much easier to write plays about people who aren’t around any more.

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