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The Transit Of Venus
Published on Tuesday, 17 July 2012

5 starsUnited Reformed Church, Theatre
16-18 Jul, 7:30pm-9:00pm
Reviewed by Ian Hamilton

The Transit of Venus tells of two local astronomers, William Crabtree and Jeremiah Horrocks, who first observed the celestial event in 1639.  In the process, it examines the relationship between Maths, Science and Religion, in a period of considerable upheaval in England – on the eve of the Civil War and at a time of widespread religious persecution.  Set in Manchester, it is topical today, not so much because of civil unrest but because the most recent alignment of the Sun, Earth and Venus occurred in June 2012.  You will have to wait until 2117 for the next one.

Period music precedes the first appearance of Colonel Rosworm and the young, nervous Horrocks, who take turns to visit the Crabtree household.  The stuttering Horrocks, who is also a Puritan, is made welcome by Crabtree’s daughter Jenny – and before long she allows him to gaze through their recent acquisition, a telescope.  The commanding yet welcoming older figure of Crabtree arrives and, soon, we see a strong chemistry between the three of them, united by their thirst for astronomical exploration.

As Horrocks tries to instruct Jenny, we feel her excitement; but at times the puritanical Horrocks, who sees God’s work in Maths (apparently the only certainty outside the scriptures) and proclaims that fun is not allowed, is at odds with rationalist doubter Crabtree (“we must believe our own eyes”).  This tension increases against the backdrop of witch trials, which disgust Crabtree but which Horrocks tries to justify.  Yet the two scientists remain friends, and the bond between the latter and Jenny grows.

The dynamic among these three main characters is at all times fascinating – especially between the nervous, callow Horrocks, played by Nathan Morris, and the assured but devoted Jenny played by Lucy Ward.  John McElhatton is also convincing as the more worldly-wise but helpful and generous friend, Crabtree.  The nature of love, devotion, Religion and Science are all scrutinised as closely as the heavenly orbs through the telescope.

Because of the political and social unrest at the time, there are considerable tensions.  The bullying soldiers portrayed by Ben Rigby and, especially, an eerily mocking Wesley Pearce come into their own during a very moving scene with Horrocks and his mother (Sarah Jane Lee).  The impending war looms over everything, and the frequent warnings about it create a sense of imminent danger, with families split apart as sons are taken off to join the army.

For me this play has strong parallels with Brecht’s Life of Galileo.  Both are set in a similar age of scientific uncertainty, where the Church plays a huge part in everyday lives.  Both examine the notion of heroism and its necessity, and both have central characters who ultimately disappoint their more idealistic daughters.  There are also Brechtian touches in the music between the short acts, the sparse set, and the fact the lights remain on for much of the performance.

The acting and writing is very strong throughout.  Morris, Ward and McElhatton dominate and are nearly omnipresent, but the smaller characters play their key roles very effectively.  In spite of the subject matter, which at times is dark, Eric Northey’s writing is often witty – such as when Jenny points out that she is not a man, or when we are reminded that we are in Salford.  And whatever one’s personal views, there are some memorable turns of phrase: “times change, God does not”; “there are no words: language is dead.”

I found this play highly moving in its depiction of the relationship between the three main characters – in particular given the contrast between blind devotion to God and belief in the triumph of reason, as well as idealism versus expediency.  As last year, Cul de Sac Theatre are using Buxton as a warm-up for their slightly longer stay at Manchester’s 24:7 festival later this month.  I urge you see them at one of these two events.

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