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Andy Jordan Productions in association with Francis Finlaypresents


by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman

now playing until December 1

As Carl Djerassi comments in the programme, until now there have been fewproductions of ‘science-in-theatre’ plays. He cites Michael Frayn’s COPENHAGENand Steven Poliakoff’s BLINDED BY THE SUN as two notable examples in recenttimes. Djerassi and his co-writer Roald Hoffmann, both scientists, attemptto redress the balance with their exploration of the discovery of oxygen.The play’s themes are writ large (it is hard to think of what could be amore universal subject than the air we breathe), and central to the dramaare the two questions, what is discovery in science and why is it so importantfor a scientist to be first? It is perhaps inevitable that in theRiverside’s intimate studio space the grandiose themes come across as somewhatmuted and one cannot help feeling that this debate play, in part a costumedrama and fairly traditional in form and staging, would be better suitedto the West End.

In Andy Jordan’s astutely directed production, we shift in time between 1777and 2001. In Stockholm 2001, a Retro Nobel Prize Committee is set up to celebratethe centenary of the prize by establishing a new award that honours an inventionor discovery made before 1901, that had a lasting impact on mankind. Threecontenders are shortlisted, each with their own champion from the committee:Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (Paul Goodwin), Joseph Priestley (Jack Klaff) andCarl Wilhelm Scheele (Robert Demeger) all of whom laid claim to having discoveredoxygen. The three male committee members set about collecting evidence toirrefutably prove that their contender is the most deserving. The play thenmixes their findings, complete with slide shows, with a reconstruction ofthe three scientists’ interwoven lives and their meeting in Stockholm in1777.

This is a well-balanced play in a number of respects. Although there is alot to take in, Djerassi and Hoffman keep the language simple. The play informsand entertains in equal measure. The three scientists and their individualcontributions are given equal weight; I cannot imagine audience members willunanimously agree on who should be the winner. The parts for the actors arefairly divided, in terms of stage time and character development. In addition,Djerassi and Hoffman have created some strong female characters; the threewives of the scientists are all strongly opinionated, in particularLavoisier’s wife, Marie Anne (Lucy Davenport) who shares his passion forchemistry. Professor Astrid Rosenqvist (Geraldine Fitzgerald) proves a wilyChair of the Committee and her PhD student, Ulla Zorn (Catherine Cusack)who, we learn, holds the trump card in the debate.

It is also a verbose play and for the five actors playing two characters,from the past and the present, it is not always easy to make the transitionsmoothly in terms of shifts in accent and demeanour. The numerous scene changesare a little slow and clunky but all of this would no doubt be ironed outon a bigger stage.

Ultimately O2 OXYGEN proves a provocative and insightfulevening’s entertainment. Shifting between the two periods, a picture is slowlybuilt up of three eminent scientists all of whom contributed to an understandingof the air we breathe. Scheele may have discovered oxygen(‘fire-air’), but Priestley was the first to publish his findings (on‘dephlogisticated air’) and Lavoisier was the first to truly understand (andgive the name to) oxygen. In different ways, all three prove themselves worthyof the accolade “Father of the Chemical Revolution”.

Reviews by Lucy Popescu for Theatreworld Internet Magazine