Marie Curie musical at Charing Cross Theatre – review

The English-language premiere production continues until 28 July

Ailsa Davidson in a scene from the Marie Curie musical at Charing Cross Theatre
Ailsa Davidson in Marie Curie, © Pamela Raith

The road to musical theatre nirvana is strewn with bad ideas and good intentions. On paper, a South Korean tuner about a pioneering double Nobel Prize-winning female scientist whose legacy includes the treatment for cancer, sounds like an apotheosis of those extremes.

It’s good then to report that Marie Curie, receiving its English-language premiere after taking Asia by storm, is a surprisingly efficient example of the genre, and crucially one that seldom trivialises the epoch-making importance of Madame Curie’s work and never insults the intelligence of its audience.

Sarah Meadows’ well-judged, fleet production suffers from the inbuilt earnestness that suffuses Jongyoon Choi’s Sondheim-lite music and Emma Fraser’s translation of Seeun Choun’s original lyrics, but wisely centres itself on the human beings at the centre of this sombre, authentically important story.

There’s not much humour here (discovering radium and polonium then finding out the former’s killing innocent factory workers is hardly the stuff of thigh-slapping comedy) but neither does it feel like a slog. The way dialogue (Choun’s book is adapted by Tom Ramsay with real skill) bleeds into music is superior to several much more high-profile musicals. The storytelling, framed by Curie’s daughter (an appealingly lachrymose Lucy Young) reading back through a letter from her deceased mother, is more absorbing than exciting but gets the job done.

The intelligent showmanship of the production (Rose Montgomery’s set of sliding staircase and screens makes an elegant backdrop for some highly impactful projections by Matt Powell, while Prema Mehta’s lighting uses shadow to fascinating effect) means that Curie’s moral dilemma of having discovered an element that can simultaneously heal and destroy humans feels real and focused. You’d think a musical on this subject would need a choreographer like a fish needs a bicycle, but Joanna Goodwin’s beautifully thought-through work facilitates a deeply serious piece to, just occasionally, become airborne. It’s refreshing to see something that doesn’t get bogged down in romance (the love story between Marie and Pierre is almost a sideline) although some of the ballads get a bit cloying.

It’s well cast. Ailsa Davidson makes something fine and memorable out of the titular character, capturing her brilliance, humanity and rage, and sings like a righteous clarion. A luminous Chrissie Bhima is heartbreakingly good as the ally who becomes a victim of her friend’s scientific discovery. The two female leads share a duet of mutual grief and disappointment near the end of the show that really hits home, like “I Know Him So Well” but with radiation sickness and an IQ the size of a planet. Thomas Josling delivers sensitive work as Pierre Curie and Richard Meek is tantalisingly ambiguous as the factory owner who knows more than he’s letting on. All of the singing is top-notch.

Worthy and engaging as Marie Curie is, it could use a couple of haunting tunes, and while it never descends to the risible, there’s little to make it really stand out from a plethora of musicals on sombre themes. As it stands, it’s a handsome piece of theatre lacking a sense of true individuality, but one that propounds its feminist themes most persuasively.

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Marie Curie

Final performance: 28 July 2024