Review: An Experiment with an Air Pump – Giant Olive Theatre – The Lion & Unicorn Pub (Kentish Town)

‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ – Giant Olive Theatre – The Lion & Unicorn Pub (Kentish Town)

With the vast amount of shows happening in London at any one time it is sometimes the case that pub-based theatres get overlooked for the hype of the West-End. However, for those willing to seek out these smaller productions, you can often uncover hidden gems of brilliance. ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ at the Giant Olive Theatre has it all - mystery, comedy, wit and a healthy helping of the dark and macabre.

It is here, in the theatre above the warm setting of the Lion and Unicorn pub (get there early as they serve some amazing food!), that this dark tale unfolds. The plot surrounds the lives of two families, both living in the same house, 200 years apart. In 1799 the Fenwick household debate the ethics of scientific practice. We see head of the household, Joseph conducting his experiments - much to the delight of two young scientists Roget and Armstrong. However, while dedicating his life to science, Joseph (a ‘Mr Bennet-like’ character) must also attempt to keep the peace amongst the women of his house, appeasing his neglected wife Susannah while acting as referee over his two fiery daughters. Meanwhile in the background we see the ruthlessly calculating physician Thomas Armstrong take a particular liking to housemaid Isobel – a young woman with a hunched-back who we learn would make a “fascinating subject” on the dissection block.

While these events unfold in the past, the startling discovery of a young girl’s body in 1999 leaves our second family reeling. Who was this woman? Why did she die, and how did her body end up left for 200 years buried in the house?

This is an incredibly demanding play for any actor, as many parts have to double up – playing a character both in the past and present. However, this did not seem to faze the Giant Olive actors who managed to move between the two time zones effortlessly.

Particular credit must be given to young emerging actor Mason Kayne for his role both as the dark and dangerous Armstrong and loveably philosophical layman Phil. Every time he entered the stage as Armstrong he possessed an air of menace. So convincing was his performance that the audience often audibly sighed, gasped and tutted in disgust as he fiendishly pursued young Isabel. Yet he also portrays what I consider to be the most likeable character of Phil who I found myself looking forward to seeing. Noah James played a dashing, yet beautifully naïve Roget and Olivia Hunter’s Isobel captures both the character’s movement between strength and vulnerability perfectly.

While the script can sometimes appear a little over-worded, this production is clearly deeply loved by both its cast and production team. There are some incredibly witty and hilarious moments that had the audience laughing loudly. The play is filled with little anecdotes and ‘moments’ that reflect just how much effort and thought has gone into its making. Very rarely do I leave from a production immediately wanting to see it again, but I get the feeling that every night there would be something new to be noticed. It truly is one of London’s hidden gems.

Melissa Phillips