"This has been a bit of an experiment," said Simon Singh, thanking the audience at the end of Theatre of Science. For a man whose principal concern this evening had been with probability and chance, hedging his bets was a shrewd, perhaps even predictable move. If anyone had come expecting the Grand Guignol of an 18th-century anatomist's cockpit, or a sinister Edwardian mesmerist with staring eyes, then they must have been disappointed. The Soho Theatre's studio space looked like a university seminar room, complete with the dread overhead projector. And it was as hot as a Bunsen burner. This was theatre as in "lecture theatre". The drama, then, was going to depend on the performance.
After a quick, wise-cracking introduction from his partner and second-half performer Richard Wiseman, Singh was first up.
If Simon Singh had been one of my college teachers, I would have forsaken Teletubbies of a morning and got to my maths lecture on time. He's charming and engaging to a great enough extent that it's easy to forgive him for being woefully under-rehearsed (a director was thanked at the end but what she did was beyond me). I don't want to give away all his best lines (he has already given away quite a lot in print anyway), save to say that his first routine involving money being the square root of all evil quickly got a giggle from the audience. And he had some sharp insights into how probability can be manipulated to sway murder juries and have a devastating result on people taking Aids tests. But to call this theatre just because it was in one was really stretching the point.
On paper, Richard Wiseman was a better bet. A former professional magician, turned psychologist, turned paranormal investigator, Wiseman at least had an air of showbiz schtick about him. Deception was his game and he headed into Penn and Teller territory with a giveaway on sleight of hand and how even other magicians can be fooled if you play to their expectations. And the basketball video (you'll have to see it for yourself) made happy suckers out of most of us. But to tell us that the only people who are really good at spotting liars are the American Secret Service without telling us how, was missing a trick. And get your technology working smoothly, Richard. It was worth the wait, but you nearly lost us.
I want to be encouraging. The show is in a fine modern tradition that includes The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (that made Professor Eric Laithwaite an unlikely childhood hero to many), Johnny Ball's "Think of a Number", with a nod to the late, great Magnus Pyke along the way. The complete absence of cynicism is admirable and Singh and Wiseman were positively begging for feedback. So here's some. If they want to reach a greater audience than can be drummed up by appearing on Radio 4 now and again, then the least they should do is set fire to some magnesium ribbon or something. Or stage the basketball routine with a full cast. Only a 2:2 so far, guys; a bit more application needed next term. But you're still getting honours.
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