Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, Bloomsbury Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

"It's not overlong, it's value for money!" exclaimed Robin Ince at the end of the second night of his third series of seasonal rationalist jamborees, celebrations that are akin to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures with jingle bells on.

How, indeed, can one impose expectations of a slick narrative arc on this collection of academic, comedic and musical talent, where adhesion to a scientific theme varies wildly between acts? The answer would be to impose the kind of discipline that some of tonight's guests use in their day jobs, but, with nearly twenty acts, that juggling act might be harder to pull off than isolating the Higgs Boson particle.

The work of the Hadron Collider featured in host Robin Ince's introductory remarks, “let's ring up Switzerland and see if we can borrow some of it” was his imagined scenario for how physicists started it up. Mathematician Simon Singh followed with a story about another fascinating piece of apparatus and his intriguing guide to the Enigma machine's workings (he brought his own) could have been a closer.

A certain amount of decoding was needed to glean the utility of social psychologist Alex Krotski's contribution while chemist Andrea Sella's goofing around with nitric oxide had explosive results plain for all to see. Before Sella closed the first half Helen Keen and Richard Herring were among the comedians who kept proceedings buoyant, the former with a look at how Nazism and Satanism had a role to play in NASA's development.

The second half saw Robin Ince pass hosting duties to Alexei Sayle who charmed the audience with numerous vignettes. One recounted a trip to a Greek restaurant in his native Liverpool where the waitress demanded of him and his wife: “we've run out of pita, do you want Hovis?”

However, Sayle's muscle-flexing in advance of his vowed return to stand up was a bit off-message and the contextualising of the acts was lost. Despite a lack of prefacing science writer Phillip Ball still beguiled with a section on the wonder of small discoveries, including “bouncing shampoo” and mathematician and stand up Matt Parker made hay with graphs.

Penultimate act Josie Long eventually introduced the sweet concept of an alternative advent calendar (“December 18th is a snake that takes you back to May 29th”) while headliner Mark Thomas regaled with a number of fantasy manifesto pledges he had come up with his tour audiences. “All cash machines should have a gamble button” ran one.

Runs until Fri 23rd December