Stuart King

Review: MARIE CURIE at Charing Cross Theatre

Polish born Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a driven, focused and determined woman who consistently met with derision and hostility from the male dominated scientific community of her day. Through sheer willpower and an innate self-belief, she overcame opposition and changed many of society’s beliefs about women and their potential role in non-traditional endeavours. Her fortitude and tenacity remains an example of what women can achieve, and continues to shine a spotlight on the shameful and complacent attitudes of a patriarchal system which in many ways still belittles women’s achievements and potential.

Marie Curie Musical Company. Pamela Raith PhotographyMarie Curie Musical Company. © Pamela Raith Photography

When news first filtered to reviewers that a new musical of South Korean origin, charting Marie Curie’s discovery of radium was going to hit London, it was met with a mixture of bemusement, curiosity and abject alarm. Cinema screens had recently (and briefly) been graced by a somewhat maudlin biopic on the same subject staring Rosamund Pike and there were misgivings that a story about the groundbreaking Nobel scientist would be something of a strange subject for a musical theatre makeover. However, there is precedence for quirky and unusual subjects proving successful — but they depend heavily upon the quality of the treatment. Now that MARIE CURIE has opened at the intimate subterranean Charing Cross Theatre, we have an opportunity to evaluate its merits… and flaws.

First off, it should be said that Madame Curie and her husband Pierre’s place in the pantheon of science is well established and secure. Nothing can diminish the considerable significance of their discoveries or the impacts (both positive and negative) the couple and their extended family’s work, has had on our world. It may not be possible however, to guarantee a similarly starry place in the musicals firmament for this well-meant but ultimately inconsistent effort.

With the original book and lyrics by Seeun Choun and music by Jongyoon Choi, the work required an English adaptation by Tom Ramsay and further lyrics and arrangements by Emma Fraser (who also serves as the production’s MD). Credit where credit is due, this cannot have been an easy task, however accountability is also a factor and lyrically this is an untidy affair which suffers from not knowing what it wants to be or whose story it really wants to tell. There are glimmers of potential - An unscrupulous factory owner Ruben DeLong (played by Richard Meek) is determined to reap financial benefits from his investment in the potential uses for Curie’s radium, and seems more focused on maintaining the production line for the miracle element, rather than acknowledge the widespread sickness of his workers who unwittingly ingest it as part of their naive processing. Here, he cuts a rather bland figure but their relationship could have been an interesting angle to explore rather than simply regurgitating the well-worn biographical history of the obstacles Curie had to overcome.

Ailsa Davidson in the title role carries the huge weight of expectation and is barely off stage during the running time. As written, her considerable vocal range is fully explored and on press night she acquitted herself with honour, but maintaining her voice in such a demanding role may yet prove an issue - a consideration I shall return to in a moment. Central to the story, is Marie’s doomed friendship with fellow-Pole Anna Kowalska (here played by Chrissie Bhima) which forms as the pair venture to France to explore new beginnings. Anna’s trajectory is less auspicious and she eventually becomes one of the victims of the aforementioned radium factory. On occasions, their joint numbers have a tendency to descend into a battle of the divas which in a small venue should be discouraged. There is limited value (from an audience perspective) in belting and screaming every song. Light and shade soon evaporate and the numbers all begin to sound the same, not to mention the negative impact it has on nuance and subtlety of performance. Final mention goes to Thomas Josling who (as Marie’s husband Pierre Curie) plays a largely underwritten role — as he did in life — but who is blessed with a beautiful tone in those moments when the script permits him to shine.

Whilst in many ways this is a commendable effort, the production directed by Sarah Meadows on a small and busy set by Rose Montgomery, feels misjudged. It is difficult to imagine who the show will appeal to, or indeed is aimed at. The science community isn’t noted for avid theatregoing and whilst the Curie’s life story was clearly inspiring, this reviewer suspects the musical history lesson is simply too hard a sell to put bums in seats. Time alone will tell.

Marie Curie The Musical