The Two Cultures: Arts vs Science in Oxford Drama

As any rabid enthusiast of C. P. Snow will guess, David Kell’s new play centres on the divide between arts and sciences, the title coming from Snow’s famous lecture ‘revealing’ it. A quick glance at the cast list shows the man himself (Snow, not Kell) appears on stage, so you better be prepared for a lot of discussion about Art, Science, and the gulf between the two. Much of the time the dialogue sounds like the three A.M. deep conversation I imagined would fill the nights at Oxford, though on stage they’re more realistic – ie, drunken. Still, there’s a danger of slipping into a philosophical debate that’ll either make you want to join in or take a quick nap, more likely the latter if you’ve ever had the conversation before.

However, the slide into slumber is held off by the two leads of this new play. They infuse the dialogue with subtlety as the relationship between Rosie, an artist, and James, a physicist, is allowed to blossom. Jo Allan as James presents a master class in naturalism, with a particularly strong vocal presence, producing a character who feels very real from his first stone-still moments on stage. Maya Thomas-Davis has less to do as Rosie, the less interesting character, and at first suffers for it, but she soon taps into a sweetness that makes her performance oddly touching for such a low-key, realistic production. This realism could be drawn out even further by losing the projection which the actors often rely on – the Michael Pilch Studio is a very intimate space, and I wouldn’t mind straining to hear a few words if it gave the characters more depth. Antti Laine excels in this regard, the slightest change in cadence shifting his character from comic stereotype to aggressively disconcerting in a moment.

Technically the show is sparse but well thought out, though the lighting cues are glaringly sign-posted in the play itself. At times I feel the performance would function equally well as a radio play it relies so little on the  visual, though we would miss a few moments of charming physical work between the leads. Ultimately it feels the show realises a few scenes in that it’s not about great speeches on the clash of cultures, or high drama, but rather the simple, fumbling humanity of the main roles, and in Thomas-Davis and Allan the director has found talented actors capable of overcoming any tendency to the clichéd in the writing.

-Frankie Goodway