The Royal Institution’s second Science-Fiction-Friction! show, a live comedy show about science fiction and science fact, was a little bit strange – and a little bit good.
Science-Fiction-Friction! felt incongruous. This hit home when Oort Kaipur started reeling off science raps to an audience of academics, young children and whatever comes between. This has to be a Royal Institution first – and perhaps for sound reasons. His raps were fun, informative and clever. They were written to inspire kids, which I imagine they do, and they are probably an effective teaching tool. But maybe they’re more suited to kid’s festivals and schools than live comedy.
When he launched into his first I blushed, on behalf of a cluster of stern-looking gentlemen who began self-consciously pulling in their wrinkly heads to the beat – like interested tortoises that sense a predator lurking behind them. Most people remained seated, moving as little as possible, squeezing out determined smiles. This wasn’t Oort Kaipur’s fault. He was great.
His 15 minute set followed children’s author Ali Sparks, who started off with a Mexican wave that was met with about as much enthusiasm as an ill-measured fart. The same cluster of gentleman grimaced, rose up on their tailbones and flicked up their palms. Sparks read out one of her own poems, and some Spike Milligan ones, which she analysed to understand the science behind Spike’s ideas, asking questions like: “why are raindrops the size they are?” Or, “what would happen if we were suddenly aware of the world’s spin?” She showed a video of her speaking with a professor who gave scientific answers to the questions the poems had dug up. It was enlightening and interesting to see science poking through even the most unscience-seeming poems.
Steve Hall was very funny – I would say he was the only true stand-up comedian of the six performers – but his set wasn’t scientific at all. His concluding remarks were: “That’s why science is great. My dad got better and I’ve got a kid on the way [neither of which would have happened without medical help].” The crowd laughed most during his part of the show.
Maybe the strangeness of the gig came from the show’s compère, Helen Keen. She apologised for making the same jokes as at the first show – not a good start when most of the audience attended the first show. There was none of the attendee ridiculing I expect from a stand-up performance that would have demonstrated her quick wittedness and improvisational skill. The one occasion when Keen did mock someone from the audience, about being a Lib Dem, she quickly apologised. Throughout the show she seemed to try to make up for the night’s general lack of structure with high-pitched enthusiasm, as if this compensated for Steve Cross not being particularly funny. It reminded me of my aunty at our less successful family dinners. By talking and talking, injecting enthusiasm into every syllable, really pricking the high octaves, she thinks she can change the fact that the turkey’s been cooked with the plastic bag of giblets inside.
And there Cross goes now: he smirks and leaps over the front row of seats towards the stage. His talk was about Star Wars. His conclusion: “Heroes are just a load of crap. Keep an eye on your heroes.” Ten minutes that would have been better spent on rush hour tube.
Sophie Scott was great, using the film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to introduce a set about MRI scans. She talked mainly about the extreme magnetic force of MRI scanners, which is 60 times greater than the magnetic field of the earth, and she showed some funny moments captured on CCTV when metal objects, for instance a workman’s drill, were sucked into the super-magnetic scanner. Her performance was well-structured and funny.
Science-Fiction-Friction! is an excellent idea. But you watch stand-up comedy to laugh a lot and to learn something about the world. I hoped to laugh and learn more.
Science-Fiction-Friction! (part 2) played at the Royal Institution on 13 February 2014.