Although I’d still give a best company name prize to recent Edinburgh appearees (??!) Expial Atrocious, running them a close second is Smoking Apples – though I’d be hard pressed to identify why. The group have been around for about ten years and have carved out a definite niche for themselves by making use of puppetry and developing a particular visual style in order to explore issue led topics. Their 2018 show to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage has continued to develop and was taken on tour backed by the Institute of Physics as a way of encouraging teenage girls to go into STEM based careers (science/technology/maths). In its latest iteration it has become a filmed record called Flux – Digital.
In the wake of the stunning success that Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green have had recently in leading the development of a Covid vaccine, this is a timely reminder of how women in science isn’t some sort of unnatural combination; it’s also a look back at how things were not so long ago. It’s 1984 and there’s stuff on the radio about the miners’ strike, Torvill and Dean winning gold and the early days of a new computer called the Apple Mac.
Physicist Kate Hawthorn is something of a workaholic as she develops theories about how to maximise the nuclear yield from uranium; indeed, when we first meet her it’s Saturday morning and she’s in the lab making calculations. Her clothing, bushy perm and Deidre Barlow glasses instantly delineate an era when female success at work all seems to have been measured against that of Margaret Thatcher. Kate’s one form of relaxation is music and it’s while browsing in a record shop that she meets handsome Alan and they are mutually attracted. Kate has to balance the demands of this new aspect of her life with her work but Alan’s a nice bloke with an 80s floppy fringe who is happy to support her.
I should by now have mentioned that both Kate and Alan are, respectively, a full size and half size puppet which lends their tale a charm based in the traditional rom coms of the era. Kate is a particularly well realised creation and throughout the show is manipulated variously by a trio consisting of Hattie Thomas, Molly Freeman and Anne Condé.
Pitted against Kate is work colleague Professor Bagshot a somewhat sleazy individual who tries to proposition her and then steals and claims her work as his own. For the avoidance of doubt, he is played by a human being (Matthew Lloyd) who, slightly confusingly, also manipulates and voices Alan. This being a positive message kind of play, Kate naturally defeats the villain of the piece when she finds her voice and speaks up against the injustice being done her.
And finding her voice is literal in this regard. For up until that point there is very little dialogue as such, unless it comes from the scene setting radio or Kate’s notes played on a Dictaphone. Rather the characters communicate in a series of short vocal noises – sighs, groans, interrogative sounds, guttural noises, etc). I’m making it sound a bit like an episode of The Clangers but it’s cleverer than that and the meaning/intention is always perfectly clear. It also makes more pointed and poignant the moment when Kate speaks up and claims her discoveries for herself against the patriarchal and dishonest dealings of the men she works with.
While the storyline may not be particularly innovative, the style in which and with which it is all done makes this an interesting piece to watch. It’s definitely a highly visual show and in between the scenes there is use made of a form of shadow puppetry (it’s probably got a proper name but search me) to show the characters changing location; this is charmingly done and adds an extra dimension. The set is basically Tetris on casters and changes colour to reflect mood (red for anger and so on) and there are some delightful short sequences which make use of portable neon lights suggestive of atoms whirling in space. There’s also an eighties sounding score (Jon Ouin) although when it comes to the LP sleeves being browsed in Gertie’s Records some of them don’t really seem to reflect the music of that particular era. I wasn’t completely sure of the target audience but it could certainly act as a stimulating conversation opener about potential careers. If you are watching with younger people, though, be ready and prepared to explain what a fax machine was.