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Marie Curie at Charing Cross Theatre | Review

There’s always a question with a biographical show as to what should be left out with regards to the storyline. The focus in this musical is on the work of Marie Curie (1867-1934) (Ailsa Davidson) and her scientific contributions in the field of radioactivity, presenting what appears at face value to be a balanced – as opposed to rose-tinted – view of what went on. Perhaps surprisingly for a show named for Curie, a substantial amount of time is given to the plight of others, particularly workers in a radium factory, including Curie’s good friend Anne Kowalska (Chrissie Bhima), who were exposed to radiation because, as the musical would have it, they were instructed to lick the tip of small paintbrushes in order to get a fine point on them. The problem, unknown at the time as radium was a brand new element Curie and her husband Pierre (Thomas Josling) had discovered, was that the women painting radium watches (at least I think that’s what the factory was making), were effectively ingesting radioactive matter. You can, I’m sure, work out for yourself what the musical number called ‘Line of Death’ is about.

Marie Curie at Charing Cross Theatre. Photo credit: Pamela Raith.
Marie Curie at Charing Cross Theatre. Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

At one hundred minutes without an interval, the life and times of Marie Curie are told at pace – it’s rare to come across a show that announces its central character won two Nobel Prizes before swiftly returning to the progress of her scientific work. It was only when I read up about Curie afterwards on the train home that it became apparent to me that she remains the only person to have won a Nobel Prize in two sciences (1903, in physics and 1911, in chemistry). But this is a musical for contemporary audiences, and it proceeds at the speed at which one might expect the discovery of polonium to be explained in, say, a TikTok video.

This, it transpires, is both a blessing and a (sort of) curse. It’s always a good thing when a one hundred minute show feels more like sixty, and I never felt as though I was waiting for a musical number to finish so the story could carry on. But the focus on Curie’s professional life comes at the almost inevitable sacrifice of details of her personal life, and while her daughter Irène (Lucy Young) bookends the show with platitudes about her, the narrative shifts very quickly from a cordial workplace partnership between Pierre and Marie to a baby being cradled in Marie’s arms. It’s almost laughable until one realises there’s radioactive matter in the same room. It’s also, to be fair, a refreshing change to a woman being portrayed as someone sidelined and confined to childcare and the kitchen.

The benefits of her scientific breakthroughs were laid bare in the show, and the production itself gets a lot of things right. Andrew Johnson’s sound design ensures a good balance between the seven-piece band (ably directed by Emma Fraser) and the cast’s voices, and it never felt too loud. Sarah Meadows’ direction takes note of the relatively limited stage space in the venue, such that the stage never looks too cluttered or looking like it really ought to be staged in the Royal Opera House. A couple of the musical numbers are Lloyd Webber style ‘big sings’, drawing hearty applause from the audience on press night (make of that what you will).

There has been some creative licence deployed: too much of a spoiler, alas, to say exactly where, suffice to say factcheckers won’t exactly be impressed. No matter: Davidson’s Marie Curie has a stoic yet humble personality, and the show hammers home a point about triumph over adversity and misogyny – as the dialogue would have it, there weren’t even women’s toilets in the science wing of the Sorbonne, as the University of Paris is referred to, and she was apparently denied access to science laboratories, despite consistently scoring highly in her chosen modules as a student there.

Overall, this was a convincing and compelling production, providing enough detail on Marie Curie’s achievements without getting bogged down in the finer scientific details of her work.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

CAST
Marie Curie – Ailsa Davidson
Anne Kowalska – Chrissie Bhima
Pierre Curie – Thomas Josling
Ruben DeLong – Richard Meek
Irene Curie/cover Anne Kowalska – Lucy Young
Featured Ensemble/Alternate Marie – Isabel Snaas
Featured Ensemble/cover Ruben – Christopher Killik
Featured Ensemble/cover Pierre – Dean Makowski-Clayton
Featured Ensemble – Maya Kristal Tenenbaum
Featured Ensemble – Yujin Park
On Stage Swing – Rio Maye

CREATIVES
Producers: Byungwon Kang & LIVE corp.
Book & Lyrics: Seeun Choun
Music: Jongyoon Choi
Musical Director, English Lyrics, New Musical arrangements & Ensemble arrangements Emma Fraser
Director: Sarah Meadows
English Book Adaptation: Tom Ramsay
English Lyrics Adaptation: Emma Fraser
Literal Translation: Ahreumbi Rew
Associate Director: Olivia Munk
Set & Costume Designer: Rose Montgomery
Lighting Designer: Prema Mehta
Choreographer: Joanna Goodwin
Costume Supervisor: Evelien van Camp
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson
Casting Director: Jane Deitch
Production Manager: James Anderton
General Management: Ollie Hancock & Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment

As she arrives from her native home in Poland to study at Sorbonne University in Paris, young Marie Sklodowska is certain she can make a name for herself and change the course of science. She discovers radium, a new chemical element, with her husband Pierre Curie, and she’s lauded with the Nobel Prize.

But she is faced with an overwhelming moral dilemma. As Marie discovers the lifesaving potential of radium to cure cancer, factory workers handling the glowing substance are succumbing to the insidious grip of radium poisoning.

As a woman with society against her, can she wrestle with both the potential and danger of her discovery – and what is she if radium’s dangers overshadow its possibilities?

MARIE CURIE
Charing Cross Theatre
Saturday 1 June – Sunday 28 July 2024

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