Uncaged Monkeys review UPDATED

6 04 2011

I was lucky enough to snag some tickets for the sold-out opening night of the new Robin Ince/Brian Cox/Simon Singh/Ben Goldacre theatre show “Uncaged Monkeys”.

Whilst it was great to spend an evening in the company of the A-team of science presenters and popsci writers I couldn’t help but feel that this had all been put together on the hoof.

Robin Ince held the evening together as compere and he introduced each of the “acts” who took turns to do their 10 or 15 mins worth.

Brian Cox was obviously the highlight as he was allowed to do two slots. He spoke about the size of the universe and its creation. Simon Singh also spoke about space (he is the writer of Big Bang). Richard Wiseman, for me stole the show, with a piece about perception and visual illusions. Ben Goldacre lost minutes of his valuable time slot with presentation problems but then spoke about scientific method and drugs testing. There was also a mathematician and a song writer who had guest slots.

If this had been a one-off comedy club gig and cost a tenner I’d have felt I’d had more than got my money’s worth but as part of a heavily advertised nationwide tour, in Glasgow’s second largest theatre and with seats costing a whopping 23pounds (plus booking fee) I felt I’d been short changed.

There was no staging apart from two borrowed and hastily covered tables. There was a powerpoint (keynote?) presentation run from a lone laptop controlled from the stage (ie: no technician or vision mixing). There wasn’t even seats for the presenters to sit on when answering questions or a light for them to read quotations by when the main lights had been turned off.

I hope this is very much a work in progress as there are a lot of improvements that could be made to it.

When watching science shows I like to ask three questions: where’s the science? who’s the audience? and what’s the story. You can find out more about why here:

Where’s the science?
A science presentation without science is not a science presentation and unfortunately this didn’t have a lot of science in it. The acts were under rehearsed and it all felt cobbled together.

Brian Cox was great to listen to but very hard for even people familiar with his stuff to follow. His carefully crafted (read: edited) TV shows would have been a much better way of learning about this subject. Here he tried to cover at least two TV shows worth of material in 35mins and with only a few static slides. By trying to cover too much he fell into the trap of assuming too much knowledge and using lots of very long words. This wasn’t brilliant sci-com as if you knew the science already (or if you’d seen the programmes) you didn’t need to hear it again and if you didn’t know the science you wouldn’t have got far with this talk.

There’s an old music hall saying: don’t follow a banjo act with a banjo act. Poor Simon Singh, fresh from winning his fight with the British Chiropractic Association and the writer of many popsci books, ended up talking about the creation of the universe as well. This was a shame as he could have spoken about any number of other things. He looked uncomfortable and kept referring to what BC had already said as if he knew that he was covering the same material again.

Richard Wiseman is a performer as well as a psychologist and it showed. Although he was ploughing a well turned field (visual illusions) he did it very well. However I’d have liked more science background to the illusions other than just “our brains have evolved this way”. There really wasn’t much science here but it was very amusing.

Ben Goldacre did introduce some scientific concepts: the scandal that drugs companies can chose which studies they release, that correlation doesn’t imply causation (MMR and autism), etc, but he didn’t have the time to delve deeply into anything. We didn’t learn anything beyond what we could have from reading his book and even though he lost precious minutes to a technical problem his talk felt like an hour long lecture condensed into 15mins.

Who’s the audience?
I’d guess half the people there had come to see “the Peter Andre of physics” (as he was described by Robin Ince), Brian Cox. They would have left happy as we were treated to 35mins of his trademark Cheshire Cat grin and floppy hair. I thought he was surprisingly tall until I realised in his shows he never appears with anyone else so I’d had no way to compare before now. Perhaps people who’d come to see BC would have wanted to have spent more time in his company? He really is passionate about his subject and the overall effect is quite hypnotic. It was a shame it wasn’t more focused.

The rest of the audience were there to see the A-team of popsci writers and I suspect a lot of them, like me, had already seen these writers already. If you had you really wouldn’t have seen much that was new and that was a shame. As I’ve said seeing rehashed old material as part of an impromptu stand-up night would be ok but it felt cheap having spent 23quid.

What’s the story?
There was no overall story. Robin Ince didn’t really explain what was going on and why were were there. It was assumed that seeing all these people on the one stage was going to be sufficient.

The Infinite Monkey Cage (the Radio 4 show that spawned this live show) has a weekly theme that is explored. These presenters should know that a show needs some sort of an overall theme but we didn’t get one here. Unfortunately I think this points to the haphazard nature of the whole thing. Instead of carefully crafting a show this was a rag-tag bunch of people’s unrelated party pieces.

What did work very well was when there was more than one person on the stage. What I did take away was that these presenters are all incredibly talented and engaging individuals who are obviously passionate about what their subjects are. I’d have like to have seen more interactions between the presenters as Brian Cox especially, came across as surprisingly funny and engaging.

At one point there was an attempt for the four main presenters to answer questions submitted via twitter but this didn’t last long. Unfortunately the way it was staged revealed the lack of thought that had gone into the whole production: Robin Ince stood behind a mic stand struggling to hold onto his laptop and speak at the same time whilst the others stood in a single line on a bare stage looking awkward. Why not have a sofa for them to sit on, or at least some stools (even pinched from the bar), unless the piece really hadn’t been thought out previously?

So overall it was fun, it was long (3hrs) and if I was being very generous I’d say charmingly haphazard. Unfortunately having brought a gang of non-science geeks who had all paid top dollar I was painfully aware that this was a missed opportunity to promote the wonder of science. It was under prepared- more of a rehearsal than a preview even- and I hope they get their heads together and look to improve it for the rest of the run.

UPDATE: A fine performer in Northern Ireland, Dr Paul McCrory, has just pointed out that this show is a touring version of the 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People show (see below). I am now even more disappointed than I was. What we saw in Glasgow wasn’t a first effort that could be improved upon but actually a shadow of what they’d already achieved.




3 responses

6 04 2011
Sarah Brown

You are not wrong. I really enjoyed it but i also felt it was haphazard and unnecessarily so. I regularly run events with a science focus and I work very hard to ensure a smoothly running, professional show. I don’t think the monkeys gave a monkeys. That said Prof Cox still rocks, his knowledge and enthusiasm were enthralling. Richard Wiseman was our favourite too, fun, interesting, thought provoking.

6 04 2011

Hi Sarah, where can I find out more about the events that you run? James

11 05 2011
Tina Swasey

really appreciate your review. I too was a bit shocked by the price of the tickets, but was hoping there might be some more performance aspects to it. I have tickets to see it next Tuesday in London – we’ll see how it goes!

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