by Rachel Halliburton
It reveals a great deal about the lively, flirtatious presentation of science in this play that it opens to the giggles of a young lady being beaten in a Swedish sauna.
In the wake of plays such as Stephen Poliakoff 's Blinded by The Sun, and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, the writers of Oxygen aim to bring a breath of fresh air to the brave new world of science-in-theatre - so that by combining sex, gender politics, academic rivalry and the odd clockwork mouse, they can ignite enthusiasm in the most unscientific of minds.
This play has attracted initial media attention as the writers are Carl Djerassi, the offspring of the father of the Pill, and Roald Hoffman, a former winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. If you think Phlogiston is an obscure holiday resort, and would happily accept a thesis on catalysts for oxygenated polymers as a substitute for valium, then Oxygen, at its most basic, displays a series of ingenious and highly theatrical tactics for making science accessible.
Against Russell Craig's set, a treasure trove of test tubes, flasks, wig stands and a particularly enticing phrenology bust, Oxygen leaps between two settings - Stockholm in 2001, and the same city in 1777. In contemporary Sweden, four scientists meet to award a retro-Nobel Prize to the individual who has made the most valuable contribution to science before 1901, and amid acerbic comments such as "the dead don't repay favours", it is decided that the man who discovered oxygen should be the winner.
Who, however, did discover oxygen? One scientist on the committee declares: "We're always in a race where being first counts for everything." Therefore, a piece of historical detective work develops, which puts the claims of 18th century scientists Antoine Lamont Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, and Carl Wilhelm Scheele under the microscope.
From the opening sauna scene, Djerassi and Hoffman emphasise the importance of the scientists' wives. The playwrights' feminism is very welcome, if rather heavy-handed. The science is far more deftly presented. Even though the human element is too neat to convince entirely, the oxygen masque, and the staged scientific experiments are ravishing. A satisfyingly spicy scientific number.