London Theatre 1
‘fascinating and compelling in equal measure’ ★★★★
These days, the words ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’ are accepted as part of common language. There is a real uncertainty about who or what can be trusted as a source of news or information.When a lone warrior attempts to stand up against the resources of a large corporation, whose voice is likely to win through? That is the problem facing the hero of Chuck Anderson’s The View from Nowhere at Park 90.
The evening starts with a lecture from Dr Prez Washington (Mensah Bediako) a renowned – some might say notorious – scientist who specialises in endocrine disruptions. In jaunty and cheerful style, he tells his audience of the things that can cause cancer, including one of the chemicals in a particular herbicide. The chemical is called Atraphosphate and the manufacturer is Alchemex, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Next we are in Prez’s lab where, with his post-Doc researcher Sandy Jones (Emma Mulkern) are talking with Dr Tom Pennington (Math Sams) a representative of Alchemex who has come with an awesome offer to fund Prez’s work and invite him onto a peer review committee to examine the effects, if any, of Atraphosphate on living bodies. This is all part of a marketing strategy by Alchemex’s Director of Corporate Affairs Rona Worthing (Nina Toussaint-White). Rona believes that she can control the messages getting out about Atraphosphate, but she underestimates how much of a maverick Dr Prez really is. So, in the battle for the truth who will win and what lengths will each side go to to ensure their version of reality is one accepted as truth?
In my day job we have a one-day course on unconscious bias. The course starts with each group being asked to draw a scientist. 9 times out of 10 the picture that is produced is an elderly white man wearing a lab coat. Mensah Bediako playing Prez, couldn’t be further from this image if he tried. Prez is a tall black man with dreadlocks and a highly colourful dress sense. This is an interesting touch for the author to put in. Making Prez not only a lone voice against the corporation but also someone that many people outside of the scientific community, would not necessarily take seriously as a scientist. It is a brilliant touch to an already fascinating plot. Mensah plays to part superbly. When he first came on for the opening lecture/monologue, my mind instantly turned to Johnny Ball and his shows. That infectious enthusiasm that he transmits means even if the science side goes over your head, you can’t help but liking and trusting Prez. In contrast, Tom Pennington is exactly what you would expect from a scientist that has taken the corporate 30 pieces of silver. Math Sams portrays the scientist who finds himself conflicted between scientific method and purity and loyalty to the company. Nina Toussaint-White’s Rona has no such problems. Her loyalty is to the company that pays her and she will not let anything as inconvenient as the truth get in her way of protecting the company and its brand. Power suited to perfection – nice work by designer Dan Street – Nina plays Rona as a ruthless manipulator of people and ‘facts’ and does it superbly.
Of the four characters, I found Sandy Jones to be the least developed. There seemed to be a lot of potential, especially given the character’s background but I just didn’t feel I fully grasped her thoughts or why she acted the way she did. Emma Mulkern played the part well but I really did think the character needed more fleshing out. Director Dan Phillips stages The View From Nowhere in the round and this works very well in the compact space of Park 90. Characters move around enough so that there are very few times when blocking is an issue and by moving around the edges, we can go with Prez on his lecturing/fund raising tour. Overall, I think the staging worked really well and with Chris Howell’s lighting design kept the audience very focussed on the action as it moved round. The View from Nowhere is apparently all fiction but I imagine it is based on quite a bit of reality. There is a real concern about the effects that the blend of chemicals circulating in the environment may have consequences that are currently unknown. The play is well written and acted and, even if the technical side was a little bit above me, I found it fascinating and compelling in equal measure. An interesting story, really well staged that has the potential to create a long discussion and a frisson of distrust the next time some multi-national conglomerate puts out a press release saying everything they produce is fine… honest.
Review by Terry Eastham
‘unapologetically cerebral’ ★★★
Taking its title from a philosophical treatise on objectivity, The View from Nowhere is a thought provoking examination of clashing egos and conflicted interests. Despite an overwrought tone and occasionally didactic script, director Dan Phillips and writer Chuck Anderson – who collaborated previously on 2014’s troubling refugee camp drama Warehouse of Dreams – successfully sketch out an intractable but intriguing ethical dilemma.
The story follows unorthodox scientist Prez, whose research into carcinogenic pesticides incriminates the multinational chemical corporation which funds his research. Mensah Bediako imbues the larger than life Prez with real presence, projecting swaggering intellectual assurance while hinting at a festering inferiority complex stemming from his deprived background. Beside him, Emma Mulkern’s post-doctoral researcher Sandy struggles to separate her passion for science from hero worship. As their professional relationship disintegrates, her ferocious ambition movingly gives way to brittle isolation.
Nina Toussaint-White, meanwhile, makes a determined effort to humanise ruthless corporate agent Rona, but still ends up a caricature of amoral capitalism – at one point advising a distraught Sandy to get a life and go shopping. Though committed, the cast lack confidence with the script’s scientific terminology, stumbling over lines with uncomfortable regularity. Scenes play out in the round on May Jennifer Davies’ clinical, uncluttered set, which centres on a circular plinth suggestive of an oversized petri dish. The impression is heightened by projections which carpet the stage with images of gently drifting cells – one of many deft touches in an unapologetically cerebral production which certainly does not lack for ideas.
‘a heartfelt critique of the power of corporations’ ★★★
There are several pages of notes explaining terms such as endocrine disruptors and Bisphenol A in the programme for The View From Nowhere but you don’t need to understand any of these to appreciate the play’s heartfelt critique of the power of corporations in the world of scientific research.
Chuck Anderson has written a play filled with frustration at how research is dependent on funding by mighty chemical manufacturers who, despite claims to the contrary, cannot help but exert influence on how the results are interpreted and used. Taking its title from a philosophical treatise on objectivity, The View from Nowhere is a thought provoking examination of clashing egos and conflicted interests. Despite an overwrought tone and occasionally didactic script, director Dan Phillips and writer Chuck Anderson – who collaborated previously on 2014’s troubling refugee camp drama Warehouse of Dreams – successfully sketch out an intractable but intriguing ethical dilemma. The story follows unorthodox scientist Prez, whose research into carcinogenic pesticides incriminates the multinational chemical corporation which funds his research. Mensah Bediako imbues the larger than life Prez with real presence, projecting swaggering intellectual assurance while hinting at a festering inferiority complex stemming from his deprived background. Beside him, Emma Mulkern’s post-doctoral researcher Sandy struggles to separate her passion for science from hero worship. As their professional relationship disintegrates, her ferocious ambition movingly gives way to brittle isolation.
While this play could easily have touched on sectors such as pharmaceuticals, Anderson focuses on agrochemicals and concerns about their effects on animal and human health. A brilliant but maverick biologist PG “Prez” Washington seals a pact with chemical giant Alchemex to carry out research into the risks of a best-selling herbicide, Atrophosphate – a fictional chemical with a similar global dominance as real-life herbicides such as Atrazine and Glyphosate. With lab assistant Sandy Jones, he soon finds evidence that it causes abnormalities in the sexual organs of frogs which he believes has implications for humans. But despite the efforts of Alchemex’s in-house biochemist Tom Pennington, the company’s bosses are not prepared to accept his findings, setting in motion a chain of events that threatens to undermine the scientists’ careers and relationships.
In dreadlocks and a colourful “zoot suit”, Mensah Bediako embodies Prez with mercurial charm. He is a man who delights in defying convention and not playing by the rules, although he seems largely untroubled when this has consequences for other people. As a black man from a tough working-class estate, the high-flying Prez feels an outsider but makes this part of his persona, whether refusing to toe the line with the rest of the scientific community or chanting out a rap in lectures.
The emotional heart of the play is the friendship between Prez and Sandy, played with fragile zeal by Emma Mulkern. Having lost both her parents while still a child, she sees her boss as a father figure – something Prez fails to fully appreciate – but this intriguing thread is somewhat lost in the wider polemic about the agrochemical industry. It is anger that drives the play, exploring and exposing how it is impossible for any scientific research to be truly independent without funding from industry but, without this cash, the research would be unlikely to happen. It also suggests that, however much scientists want to deal only in cold facts without prejudice, there is no such thing as having a “view from nowhere”. Math Sams is excellent as Tom, a biochemist who wants to be fair to both sides but finds that you have to choose between company loyalty and personal ethics while Nina Toussaint-White is steely and tough as Alchemex’s unfailingly loyal director of corporate affairs, Rona Worthing.
Directed by Dan Phillips, this is unashamedly an issue-based play. Its conscience is Prez, who often addresses the audience directly as if they were fellow scientists at a lecture, pressing home his view on why there are problems with industry-backed research. In its criticism of the system of scientific funding, the drama has little subtlety and appears to afford no grey areas – just black and white. But maybe that is because there are no grey areas, making the play’s tone of frustration and anger one that is fully deserved.