Brian and Robin’s Christmas Compendium | Elaine Downs reports on Cox and Ince’s annual extravaganza

Brian and Robin’s Christmas Compendium

Elaine Downs reports on Cox and Ince’s annual extravaganza

What do you do at Christmas to gather friends and family together when you are not religious and have had enough Nutcracker and panto to fill a million stockings?

You congregate at Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Christmas Compendium of reason, of course. Who says that rational atheists can’t spread a bit of Christmas magic?

The buzz of the audience approaching the Compendium at the Hammersmith Apollo, is not quite like that of any other Christmas show; not least because the line- up is kept strictly under wraps. This is the good ol’ variety show reimagined for a modern audience. Instead of mother-in-law jokes you’ll have the smart and edgy comedy of Ince and friends; instead of high kicking dancers you’ll have the equally decorative but far more cerebral Professor Cox. And of course a big musical finale is a must.

Ince expertly MC’s the evening such that the show runs miraculously to time despite the vast numbers of acts, only a few of whom are mentioned here. The popular myth that there is a cultural gulf between science and the arts is heartily, hilariously debunked as comedians rub shoulders with epidemiologists and string quartets play alongside those well versed in string theory.

It includes, quite literally, a stellar cast. The Sky at Night is represented not only by the charming Chris Lintott, but also the spirit of Patrick Moore, embodied this evening by impressionist Jon Culshaw.

The stars, galaxies and very fabric of space-time are stunningly represented. Cox - as he has already done on an Infinite Monkey Cage special on Radio 4 this month – effortlessly relates Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to make it accessible, beautiful and very nearly understandable. Even if the mathematical detail is beyond many of us, the enthusiasm and yes, wonder, conveyed by Oldham’s favourite rock star Professor is more heart-warming and inspiring than any carolling reverend.

The festive fun continues with perennial geeky favourite Festival of the Spoken Nerd, fresh from a nationwide tour. The trio bring an electrifying experience with some very hands-on audience participation. The vast space of the Hammersmith Apollo becomes subject to Ohm’s Law and provides the opportunity to get close and personal with your neighbour in true Christmas party style.

Aoife McLysaght is bubbly, entertaining and genuinely enlightening on the role that ancient virus DNA plays in all our lives. Other highlights include Bridget Christie’s razor sharp feminist satire and Ben Goldacre’s rapid fire demonstration of big data in healthcare.

More music is provided by Charlotte Church and Grace Petrie, both talented singers but with very different vocal styles. This calls for two very different pieces, and provides a warm and fuzzy Christmas singalong moment without overdoing the festive schmaltz.

To l bring us back to earth with a bang is the safety-spec-wearing, always entertaining chemistry Professor Andrea Sella. He reminds us that greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is the most dangerous substance on the planet via our favourite medium of explosions.

A personal highlight is the appearance of the Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield, who famously brought music to the world from the International Space Station. He gives a wonderful insight into what Tim Peake is experiencing as he begins his historic mission in space. With calm and eloquence he explains how it feels (and even how it smells) living and working in space. He gives weight to the argument that robots can never fully replace human experience in space exploration.

The finale of the evening belongs to New Order, at whose collective feet Brian Cox blames his infamous D grade at GCSE maths. The sight of the much admired Professor clearly thrilled at joining one of his favourite bands on keyboards provides a delightful moment.

Disappointingly Blue Monday is missing from the compact set-list, which seems a slightly Ba-Humbug decision. Understandably, in the limited time available New Order showcase new material rather than deliver this well-beloved vintage favourite, but Christmas is a time for indulgence after all.

If this the only jarring note in a joyful four-hour symphony, it is more than made up for by the knowledge of the money raised for charities including Médecins Sans Frontières UK and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The Ince and Cox collaboration reflects their ability to draw on the talents of best and brightest to curate a unique and unforgettable evening’s entertainment.

As always, next year’s line-up will remain a closely guarded secret. How many favours from talented friends can this duo pull in for good causes? Best buy your tickets now and find out for yourself.

• Brian and Robins Christmas Compendium of Reason will be back on December 16 next year. Tickets are already available from Eventim.

Published: 20 Dec 2015

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