Poena 5×1 and No Horizon, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Science and Mathematics. Vaccinations, space travel, electricity. Nuclear weapons, lethal injections, pollution. Poena 5×1 and No Horizon. One is a new play showing the dark potential of science, the other a new musical celebrating overcoming disadvantage through maths. Radically different in style and story, both productions find inspiration in the potential of science, maths and technology, and both need further development.

Scientist Bryony Adams works for the Department of Justice in Poena 5×1. She’s a typical Tory suit who fully believes her horrifying work benefits the greater good – she invented Poena, a drug that reduces prison populations through humane punishment (whatever that is). Named after the minor goddess of punishment, Poena induces a state of despair and hopelessness that can lead to catastrophic mental consequences for the prisoners that are her voluntary test subjects. Bryony becomes emboldened by praise as she further develops the drug, deciding to test it on an unknowing volunteer.

Bryony is a despicable character that Cathy Conneff plays admirably, particularly as she begins to emotionally deteriorate. Considering this is a solo performance with little visual element, her ability to maintain audience focus through compelling embodiment of the character is excellent. The character presents her work to the audience until a twist reveals all is not what it seems. It’s at this point that Abbie Spallen’s script starts to lose its way. As Bryony’s story becomes more personal and less about her work, the narrative becomes knotty and unclear, having a knock-on effect on the script as a whole that until this point, terrifies through the government’s potential to commit heinous acts. Any themes and messages established about the horror of governmental capital punishment are unfortunately diluted. Reworking the ending to maintain character and plot continuity and clarifying the play’s message would take little work but have great effect.

In contrast to Poena 5×1, No Horizon has a solid, consistent script, but this new musical’s shortcomings are its music and the casting of this particular production. The true story of a remarkable young man in the 1680s looks at the power of mathematics to unite people across social class and ability. Nicholas Saunderson, blinded by Smallpox as an infant, learns to read through his friends’ support and tracing letters on gravestones. His envy and frustration grow as his parents enforce limitations on him because of his disability and his best friend in their tiny Yorkshire village goes to Cambridge. Through sheer determination and an innate aptitude for maths and physics, he eventually proves that in a pre-Braille era, disability is still no barrier to success.

It’s a wonderful, uplifting story with a generally good narrative arc, though most of the cast are gifted singers who struggle to match their acting ability to their voices. There is frustratingly little connection between characters, though George Griffiths as Joshua Dunn is a notable exception. The music is rather samey and repetitive without distinction, though there are some standout numbers amongst the Cambridge students. The music is pre-recorded, which makes it even harder to capture any nuance in tone and volume. There is minimal choreography, making the ensemble numbers more choric than musical theatre.

Theatre can be a powerful vehicle for maths and science, but in the cases of No Horizon and Poena 5×1, the subjects are let down a bit. Some tinkering is definitely needed to whip these productions into shape, but there is much potential in these character-driven stories.

Poena 5×1 runs through 29th August, No Horizon runs through 27th August.

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