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Review of Centrally Heated Knickers at the Science Museum

Centrally Heated KnickersWithout wishing to sound too damned adult about this, the great strength of Michael Rosen’s naughtily named show is its childishness.

I’m not even going to qualify that word in the usual way by saying that what I really mean is childlikeness. No, childish, in the sense that he becomes a child. You could say that this requires no great metamorphosis since this radio presenter and former children’s laureate  has always managed to communicate on apparently equal terms with people half his height and a small fraction of his age. This he does as if to the manner born, without a trace of patronage. Any looking-down on his audience is nothing but a consequence of height differences. It’s no  common gift.

There’s a But, obviously. A child maybe, but one who knows stuff. In CHK, he puts himself across as a sort of goonish experimenter, or academic Michael Bentine. This is done for a variety of functions, from revealing the sonic characters of musical instruments to discovering the essentially poetic nature of household appliances. He is abetted by the three musicians of The Homemade Orchestra, led by the saxophonist and composer Tim Whitehead and visually echoed by the dance movement of Tim’s daughter Maisie.

I caught the show at The Science Museum, at the end of its very successful national tour. There are hopes for another one in the spring of 2014. I admit to being awash with bias in favour of the two men, having known and admired their work for several decades. But their pairing is a recent one, and as intriguing as would have been one between, say Marty Feldman and John Coltrane. Jazz is the key, since Rosen’s style of sharing knowledge is made to look improvised, as if he’s not significantly more certain of what’s going to happen next than his young audience.

He unveils the Earstrument, an eccentrically graphic model of sound’s journey into the heart of the human head, via the pinna (“I grew up in Pinner”), the hammer, anvil, stirrup and so on into the weird grey walnut of the brain. Not so much Michael Bentine now as Dr. Jonathan Miller with a slight surfeit of candy.

If you want to know the origins of all this joyful unorthodoxy, Rosen’s life is strewn with clues, from his influential father, the late educationist Harold Rosen, through his time as a medical student to his switching to Eng. Lit. and his experience as a revue performer.

Any sound, he declares, can be turned into music. In fact he doesn’t so much declare this as propose it, calling on the audience and the band to demonstrate the truth of the proposition. “Anyone here got a name?” he inquires. Up go the hands and he says, “Most of you, then.”

“Corinna,” says a mother.
“That’s a Bob Dylan song,” says Rosen.
“Yes,” she replies. “I was named after it.”
“Corinna what?”

He looks at the band to see what they can do with that, and the answer is plenty, thanks not only to Whitehead himself but also to his versatile drummer Jim Hart and his tremendous guitarist David Preston. Music more eloquent than words? That may not be the show’s agenda, but it is a by-product of its approach. Nor is all about routines, however instructive they may be. From time to time, he slows and dwells, never more passionately so that on the need to take a child on his or her own merits rather than on the basis of skills and attainments. Unconditional love is the unspoken term.

Those drama teachers who stress the importance of the “found” above the “imposed” in performance would give good grades to this hour of enlightening fun.

Review by Alan Franks

Centrally Heated Knickers and image credit:

Thursday 12th December 2013


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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