Festival Of The Spoken Nerd: Life, Oh Life

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s easy to see a causal link between the spread of Robin Ince’s science-inspired night and the growing appeal of the similar Festival Of The Spoken Nerd.

And although there would be a huge overlap on the Venn diagram of their ideals – an illustration fans of either would surely be excited about – the two are separate beasts.

Spoken Nerds is usually classed as comedy, not least because of the involvement of musical stand-up Helen Arney as one of the triumverate of host-geeks. But its outright comic moments are distinctly more low-key than those provided by the big guns Ince attracts to his nights, making this one more about the joy of learning and the quirky facts, which are all presented with enthusiastic good cheer.

So while it’s not a comparison they would ever invite, Festival of the Spoken Nerd is to science what Top Gear is to cars – a trio of passionate devotees of a certain subculture, indulging their zeal with ambitious set-pieces and engaging banter. In both cases the tone can feel self-congratulatory to those not in the target tribe, but if you are of a like mind, it’s a jolly reinforcement of shared values.

There’s plenty of friendly ribbing between the three, especially Blue Peter science expert Steve Mould and ‘stand-up’ mathematician Matt Parker, mocking each other’s attempts to stray off their field, or failures with their experiments or demonstration. Parker is nominally the ‘gimp’ of the show, the one who’s always called upon when there’s some humiliation to be doled out.

‘Life’ is the none-too-limiting theme of the latest show – ‘3.4billion years in the making’ –  which encompasses everything from the e.coli bacterium (courtesy of guest academic Jenny Rohn) to the ingenuity of the human eye in making up the colour magenta. A gymnastic free runner and talented bicycle acrobat demonstrate how muscles work, we see the world through the eyes of a bee, marvel at DNA, mathematically model the extinction of the human race at the hands of the zombie hordes and sacrifice a jelly baby on the firey altar of science.

It’s a mashup of Royal Academy Christmas lectures for grown-ups... or the not fully grown-up, as there’s a geeky adolescent’s thirst for facts throughout the show, both from the stage and from the Bloomsbury Theatre auditorium.

Alongside the science, physics graduate Arney presented a couple of sweetly whimsical songs, the one about synesthesia surely going down the best, thanks in no small part to the audience being pleased with themselves for actually knowing what synesthesia was... although the context of the lyrics helps.

But these are interludes; the meat of the show is definitely the celebration of science, delivered in a fun and accessible way. Nerds of the world unite!

Review date: 23 Jan 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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