sat 20/07/2024

Marie Curie, Charing Cross Theatre review - like polonium, best left undiscovered | reviews, news & interviews

Marie Curie, Charing Cross Theatre review - like polonium, best left undiscovered

Marie Curie, Charing Cross Theatre review - like polonium, best left undiscovered

Celebrated scientist is ill-served by confused and dull show imported from Seoul

Don't cry for me, dead factory workers - the cast of 'Marie Curie'Pamela Raith

There are many women whose outstanding science was attributed to men or simply devalued to the point of obscurity, but recent interest in the likes of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin and NASA’s Katherine Johnson has given credit where credit is due. 

Marie Curie was never diminished, the woman with two Nobel prizes and the discoveries of radium and polonium on her CV needs no such championing, a figure known by schoolchildren the world over. And yet there’s something that stirs in the back of the mind, something that complicates a story of stunning success often against the odds. When the curtain rose, I was keen to find out what that half-recalled suspicion was.

We open on a young, naive Marie, off to the Sorbonne to become the first female scientist to study there (no explanation is given as to how she came by this extraordinary opportunity). On the train to Paris, she meets a fellow Pole, Anne, with whom she strikes up a friendship and whom she later recommends for a position in a factory – a Chekvov’s gun moment. There’s some cartoonish racism and sexism to deal with at the university, but she’s eventually assigned a laboratory with a French scientist, the gentle Pierre. They resolve not to fall in love, but do, and a daughter arrives. They isolate radium and its miracle properties are soon being exploited by an entrepreneur, Ruben DeLong. But the workers, including her friend Anne, are falling ill – and worse.If that reads like a synopsis offered at breakneck speed, it reflects the extraordinary pacing of Seeun Choun’s book. What would take a full 75 minutes first act in the West End or on Broadway is swept through in less than half that time in this Korean-originated musical. Exposition is confined to the science (and we know it’s science because there are lots of equations on blackboards all over the set), so there’s little character development. We learn that Marie is driven, Pierre is supportive, Anne is deferential and DeLong is going to be a villain. There’s no duet sung as love blossoms, no doubts fester in Marie’s mind – talent, hard work and determination drives away emotions – and there’s only the briefest hint of public disapproval of her approach to motherhood. 

And then the pace slows almost to a halt. Radium poisoning starts to knock down the workers one-by-one while DeLong shows his true colours by covering the horrors up to protect his investors. Marie becomes obsessed with her discovery’s potential to shrink tumours and continues her work as the impact of contact with radium on human health becomes obvious, though she survives her own extensive exposure. 

Song after song reiterates these points, and as time passes, Anne becomes more and more ill and DeLong becomes desperate. If there were explorations of legal battles, of the reaction of the wider scientific community or (what would really make the show relevant) parallels drawn with the impact of AI today, such an investment of time may be justified – but there are none. The story repeats and repeats with Jongyoon Choi’s inoffensive but samey score merging one song into the next. 

Pierre dies and suddenly we’re into a coda that executes a handbrake turn offering no resolution to the crises brought about by radium poisoning, but hails Marie’s work as having impacted on countless millions of lives through X-Rays and radiotherapy – fair enough. There isn’t time to tell us that her daughter, Irene, who has been our guide through the show, won a Nobel Prize herself – not fair enough.

It really is the most extraordinary combination of the constituent parts of musical theatre I have ever witnessed. What was director, Sarah Meadows, who was responsible for the excellent Ride at this venue in 2022, thinking? Was she so circumscribed by the original Korean version? Is Korean theatre’s approach to narrative structure really so different? (Their film industry certainly isn’t, as movies like Train to Busan and Escape from Mogadishu demonstrate.)

With the production decaying like an unstable isotope with a short half-life, one feels for a cast who show real commitment to a production that doesn’t really deserve it. Ailsa Davidson (pictured above) sings beautifully as Madame Curie, but her acting range is hardly extended by such a thin reference frame within which to work. Her only love song is directed towards a chemical element, and song after song has her slightly teary at the front of the stage declaiming her disappointment at how radium has proved a poison chalice. 

Thomas Josling and Richard Meek as the two men in her life, the husband and the financial backer, are mirror images of each other, one honest and supportive, the other mendacious and self-serving. Beyond that, we know nothing of them.

Chrissie Bhima brings humanity and warmth to a show that really needs it as the loyal friend Anne, but her fate is sealed early and, again, there’s no examination of how her death changed Marie (the same is true of her loss of Pierre).

It’s an altogether bizarre production, even Rose Montgomery’s set is an relentlessly dull mix of black and grey relieved by equations on blackboards and video projections of spidery handwriting, more Cambridge University than Cambridge Theatre. One waits for a cathartic moment, but it never comes. One hopes to learn a little of the Curies’ internal lives, but it never comes.One looks forward to the wicked corporation paying the price for their ruthless exploitation of workers, but it never comes.

But, most of all, one looks forward to the end, which, after 100 minutes, does come. .   

 

 

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