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Niamh in Spindrift_credit TOR-L

Spindrift by curious directive

30 May 2022

(Originally published in The Stage on 30 May 2022)

Spindrift, a devised show by Norwich-based company curious directive (which styles its name in lower case), is a dreamy, compelling exploration of quantum biology and family relationships. This impressionistic, multi-screen and multimedia piece, directed by the company’s artistic director Jack Lowe, is structured as a gentle mystery using the framing device of a cult science podcast called Off the Grid, which is making an episode about British scientist Carol Steiner (Amanda Hadingue) – who has recently won a Nobel prize for quantum biology – in her lighthouse home on the coast of Maine, USA.

The other members of the Steiner family are Carol’s husband Richard (Russell Woodhead), who disappeared in a sailing accident 23 years ago; their eldest daughter Niamh (Katherine Newman), a former Marine who is currently swimming across the Atlantic Ocean; their middle daughter Ira (Kate Shenton), an air-traffic controller; and their youngest daughter Noa (Sophie Steer).

The podcasters set up their recording equipment in a nearby boathouse littered with oars, boxes, buoys, yellow wellies, a washing machine, boat seat cushions and a carpenter’s desk – an atmospheric single set designed by Jack Lowe that also functions as the lighthouse home of the Steiner family – the open ocean and an air-traffic control room. Evocative projections by video designers Jasmine Robinson and Ellie Thompson – the sea, a murmuration of starlings, floating architectural plans – play across the entire back wall at times. The audio tapestry of the show, designed by Dan Balfour, Ali Taie and Theo Whitworth, is wired into each audience member’s ears via headphone sets, which makes the piece feel immersive, digital and personal.

As the podcasters construct their episode, behind-the-scenes interactions between family members, interviews and vignettes past and present exist in a jumbled timeline echoing the quantum discombobulation of the Newtonian paradigm, while the plot begins to circle insistently around the human mysteries at the heart of the show: Where did this family’s father go? And why doesn’t Noa know who her sisters are?

As a whole, the cast offers strong performances that transcend occasionally cartoonish American accents, which, thankfully, do not inordinately disrupt the otherwise outstanding theatrical fabric of this show. Amanda Hadingue’s elegant, grounded portrayal of Carol, which balances scientific passion, human imperfection and a mother’s love, is a standout performance.

Via interviews with Carol, we learn about the enigmatic beauty of quantum mechanics: “At the quantum level stuff can pass through walls” and “the quantum wave function dissolves with observation”. The mind-bending metaphors of quantum theory and perplexing behaviours of subatomic particles lend the production a scientifically mystical air, as well as being fascinatingly embedded into the plot.

Overall, Spindrift is a superbly intelligent and subtle show, whose central metaphor of quantum mechanics may be found at the cellular levels of its concept, story, sound, light, video and theatre craft.