‘The Forbidden Experiment’ (Traverse: 1 – 3 May ’14)

Michael John O'Neill and Rob Jones Photo: Chris McNulty

Michael John O’Neill and Rob Jones
Photo: Chris McNulty

‘Halting thesis: that we exist to be dumbfounded’

Editorial Rating: Unrated

Produced by ‘Enormous Yes’, The Arches Platform 18 Award Winners.

Ever wanted to get inside a clever comic strip? Here’s your chance. For me The Forbidden Experiment is highbrow, secret, Numskulls from The Beano. D.C.Thomson can be proud of this Glasgow borne variation on its team of little technicians who live inside your head, trying ever so hard to do it right but suffering mischievous upset and body blows time and again. The play is self-conscious, ingenious and cerebrally in-your-face; but its audience, to experiment with the passive voice, is likely to end up scatterbrained.

Not that there isn’t strategic purpose. It’s there in box loads over the impressive laboratory of a set: microscope, desk microphone, molecule model, lots of important looking files marked ‘Inchkeith’ with – a bit of a date fixer, these two – a carousel slide projector and a rolling blackboard (never used; shame!). All to investigate what may have happened on Inchkeith island out there in the Firth in – specifically – 1493 and 1944/45. Subjects of study are (i) Language before we fouled it up at Babel and (ii) Language when we messed with it again but this time with practised deceit, as in the British Fourth Army on Inchkeith and with radioactive fallout from the Manhattan Project . You may think that there’s not too much to go on to join (i) and (ii) but that’s where you’re wrong and the two guys in lab coats are right, kind of.

Halting thesis: that we exist to be dumbfounded, for our understanding is forever partial.

So, there’s writer/actor Michael John [Brainy] O’Neill as Himself in a white coat, when he’s not cut up in love or sailing out to Inchkeith with those boxes. He is also penitent, freighted, James IV, who would learn to speak with God, and Mr Alvarez whose small ranch in Socorro County, New Mexico, turns out to be way too close to the nuclear test site. And there’s director Rob [Blinky] Jones, with suitable beard and always in a white coat, a natural at the lab bench you might think, but no. Laconic and spare assistance – not least on keyboards, guitar and harmonica – is provided by Matt [Radar]Regan, whose Abbot Counsellor to James IV is Gollum at his most precious. The Company is completed by Zosia Jo (too expressive for a Numskull), whose dancing in the two roles of ‘Creature’ and Michael John’s ‘Ex’ is especially demanding and pairs well with the cryptic kaleidoscope of the slide show.

Were there an ‘Only Connect’ wall on that blank blackboard then The Forbidden Experiment would have been easier. As it is its different narratives describe fraught or frenetic situations that defy sorted outcomes, let alone a conclusion. Radiation sickness breaks down Alvarez’s speech; redacted documents frustrate History, capital ‘H’. Love overturns a dingy crossing to Inchkeith. We are left with revolving images and impressions of marvellous and necessarily strained acting – O’Neill’s in particular – and the light relief of actors, as well as boffins, getting peeved with each other and with the script.

As a body of work The Forbidden Experiment is terrific and will stay in your head. Mine is not big enough to see it all at once.


Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 May)

Visit The Forbidden Experiment homepage here.