God's Dice | Review of Alan Davies in David Baddiel's first play © Helen Maybanks
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God's Dice

Review of Alan Davies in David Baddiel's first play

David Baddiel isn’t the first creative person to have learned about quantum physics in all its weirdness and come to the conclusion that it requires an almost-religious leap of faith to believe this is the way unseeable particles actually behave.

This is the basis for his first play, God’s Dice, which explores the centuries-old frictions between science and religion, but suggesting that they might be two manifestations of the same thing – just like, perhaps, the way an electron can be both a wave and a particle depending on how you observe it.

However, the comic’s first play approaches this in a clunky way, with naive and one-dimensional characters. Eventually, the waveform of his plot collapses into something more interesting about faith, rationality and the human condition – but it takes some getting to, before spiralling off again into the realms of the improbable.

Playing against his QI persona of the affable dimwit, Alan Davies makes for a convincing physics professor Henry Brook, contentedly noodling around in Exeter university, amiably going with life’s flow After one lecture, our hero, a sceptic, is confronted by the earnest student Edie.

Gods Dice

‘I’m a Christian,’ is how she introduces herself – as if it’s such an outrageous notion that a scientist might have religious faith. To add to the binary nature of this discussion, Henry’s wife Virginia is a leading atheist, an author of didactic books in the Richard Dawkins mould, who personally belittles anyone who believes in a God. And yes, the point is made that rationalists can be as unbending and as evangelical in their beliefs as the most fiery of preachers.

We are expected to believe that a physics professor would have his mind blown when a first-year student confronts him with some of the most well-known oddnesses of his subject; while the character’s explanation of the multiverse theory is glib and bizarre – but also crucial to the unlikely, melodramatic climax.

In interviews, Baddiel has made no secret of the fact he has at best only superficial understanding of the physics – and indeed someone who expresses a number as ’6.6 times 10 to the power of minus 34.758’ demonstrates that he doesn’t even get the basics of how decimal counting works. So leaning so heavily on half-grasped science – portrayed, as usual, with a meaningless swirl of Greek letters and square root signs scribbled on a blackboard – is more than a bit frustrating. Snippets from Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman show how real concepts can be conveyed with passion and wonder.

The point Baddiel finally gets to is that quantum theory, because it deals in probabilities, tells us everything is theoretically possible, however minuscule the chances.  But if there are infinite worlds, in some of them these infinitesimally unlikely occurrences must have actually have happened. And to those who saw them, they would seem like miracles. 

This conclusion is the crux of a book that Henry writes with the help of Edie – intended as a lightweight pop-science volume, but which gets co-opted by religious nuts as concrete proof that the miracles happened. So a new cult is born, with a reluctantly protesting Henry as its godhead. 

Gods Dice

While Baddiel trips up over the science, he’s far better at the human interactions, particularly the pithy marital banter between Henry and Virginia. It helps that Alexandra Gilbreath is so good in the role of the wife, convincingly depicting her fall from confident, whip-smart iconoclast to a woman driven to the edge by social media tormentors.  

The ambitious script also addresses how the Time’s Up movement has ripped through academia, putting paid to the middle-aged professors acting on their lust for young students, as well as the malleability of facts in a ‘post-truth’ climate and – less successfully – a musing on whether motherhood opens up your spiritual horizons.

As might be expected, the play – billed as a tragicomedy – can be very funny, and there are a generous handful of choice lines when Baddiel applies a lighter touch to his pretensions. But it is very uneven, crying out for more editing, stronger characterisations and perhaps a bit of expert scientific input to make a more compelling drama of Baddiel’s undeniably big ideas.

Review date: 31 Oct 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Soho Theatre

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