Review: The Earthworks/Myth, Mischief Festival (The Other Place, Stratford-Upon-Avon)

The RSC’s Mischief Festival returns with a play about the Large Hadron Collider, and a dinner party comedy

Disillusionment lies beneath this RSC double bill – a sense that whatever we’re doing isn’t really doing anything. In their different ways, the two shorts suggest we’re shirking the biggest challenges of our times and instead, sticking our heads in the sand.

The Earthworks imagines a collision at CERN. Tom Morton-Smith, who exploded nuclear physics into an epic in Oppenheimer, pairs back to deal with particle acceleration. The night before the Large Hadron Collider’s due to switch on, a theoretical physicist and a science journalist smack into one another in a Geneva hotel. Clare’s covering the collider for a British broadsheet, and post-doc Fritjof seems the perfect person to explain the physics to a reporter struggling by on an rusty biology degree. Chemistry was bound to kick in.

As the pair cavort the night away, conducting messy experiments from kitchen to bedroom, Morton-Smith muses on their respective professions. One’s grown so niche, it’s incomprehensible without expertise. The other’s so simplistic, watered down by clickbait and churnalism, it’s become incomprehending. Science puts theory over utility; journalism, traffic over truth. Is either fit for purpose? It’s telling that the pair repeatedly end up in front on an authoritarian receptionist.

The subjects sit together well, and Morton-Smith argues that not only do they need one another, science and journalism share mutual aims – uncovering hidden truths. Both characters have their troubles deep beneath the surface, but in exacavating them, psychology sometimes goes awry as strangers spill backstories and slip into contrived custard-slinging. Thomas Magnussen’s nicely aloof as the mournful scientist, and Lena Kaur gets the gobbiness of journalism bang on, but The Earthworks is better on paper than in practice.

Ditto Matt Hartley and Kirsty Housley’s Myth: a stock dinner party comedy, satirising the costs of contemporary life, that flicks a trip switch and becomes something else altogether.

Rebecca Humphries gives a fine comic performance as the frazzled and frustrated Sarah – a career woman wondering what she’s working for, while her stay-at-home partner delights in their new zone five home. With old friends round for dinner, things start to fray – and Hartley and Housley have a keen eye for the hypocrisies and lunacies of yuppie existence, from gnocci gridles to ornamental pot plants.

Halfway through, the play glitches. It rewinds, restarts and repeats, only second time round, it all comes unstuck. At first, props go awry – the show buckles under too much stuff, while the actors struggle bravely, but blindly, on. It’s a neat illustration, but Hartley and Housley mix their metaphors when a malfunctioning set tips into something sculpted. It’s one thing for a freezer’s ice to melt, another for dead birds to drop from the flies and oil to spill down the walls. Contrivance kicks in, and with it, heavy-handedness – enough to disillusion even the hardiest of theatregoer.

The RSC’s Mischief Festival runs at The Other Place, Stratford until 17 June.