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Experiment inconclusive

English Theatre Berlin's production of An Experiment with an Air Pump tackles delicate issues of exploiting human life – and death – for scientific purposes, but the ideas outweigh the drama.

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Photo by Christian Jungeblodt

Take a dead bird, a hunchback serving girl, a Geordie labourer, an old house with a secret, a lecherous physicist, and a healthy stem-cell research debate, and what do you get?

Welcome to Shelagh Stephenson’s An Experiment with an Air Pump (originally produced in 1997), a new production at the English Theatre Berlin directed by Günther Grosser. It’s actually two parallel stories, cutting between the household of scientific patriarch Dr. Joseph Fenwick (Richard Penny) in the year 1799, and the same house in 1999, now inhabited by a geneticist, Ellen (Julie Trappett), and her husband Tom (Penny, again). The structure feels laboured until the discovery of bones in the basement provides a tingle of murder-mystery intrigue.

The issues tackled in the production, such as the ethics of genetic testing and the role of women in science, are relevant and engaging, and the idea of an ongoing Science & Theatre series seems a good one. It’s just a shame the drama doesn’t match the science.

The comparisons Stephensen invites us to draw through her narrative structure are obvious. The moral issue of how far a scientist should go to get a cadaver is played against contemporary ethical arguments surrounding stem-cell research. Gender role-reversal ahoy: in 1799, Fenwick’s daughter Harriet (Carolyn Walsh) is ridiculed for her interest in science; in 1999 Ellen is earning the bread for her unemployed historian husband.

It’s difficult to see the characters as anything other than paper-thin ciphers of ethical dilemmas or moral codes: Ellen, the well-intentioned geneticist who is tempted by a lucrative offer to adapt her diagnostic tests for use on early embryos, or Phil (Tomas Spencer) the Geordie labourer, intended probably as comic relief but whose character comes across as a seriously patronizing attempt by Stephenson to represent the ‘uneducated’ lower classes.

Tomas Fitzpatrick’s set is simple and filled with loving detail, as are Ilaria di Carlo’s costumes, but they can’t sufficiently distract from Günther Grosser’s static direction, which makes you wonder how such interesting characters can make a dull play. The cast work hard to keep this unwieldy train on the tracks – Richard Penny’s Fenwick blends the necessary gravitas with some nice touches of humour – but in the end it’s a little like watching Fenwick try to bring his dead bird back to life with the air pump. One for the scientific die-hards.

AN EXPERIMENT WITH AN AIR PUMP | February 15-19 and 22-27 at 20:00. Performances on February 15 and 22 start at 19:00 and will be followed by a discussion with cast, director and Prof. Hengge.