A Curious Coincidence
How Maths Met Theatre
24 November 2016
I love coincidences.
Early in 2015 I took my twelve-year-old daughter to see the award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at The Gielgud Theatre in London. We both loved it, not just for the performance but also for the set. The walls of the set are lined like graph paper, and spectacular graphics and lighting effects are projected onto them throughout the play. The mathematical precision of the set reflects the mind of the main character, Christopher.
A few days before we went to the play, and completely unrelated, I'd been on the hunt for a London venue for one of our Maths Inspiration shows. These are interactive lecture shows for 14-17 year olds to show them there is more to maths than taking exams. I'd wanted a venue in South London, and wondered if one of the South Bank theatres would be available - and so had rung the National Theatre.
They were keen to find a way to collaborate with us in some sort of school event to highlight the technology and engineering side of theatre, but none of their theatres were available. The idea was shelved.
It was only at the end of the Curious Incident play that I realised that, by coincidence, this play was a National Theatre production. Was there any chance we might be able to do our show there? On the set at the Gielgud? Then another thought - maybe we could actually make our show about The Curious Incident. The book is full of maths ideas that we could explore further. And the set designers needed lots of maths to create the set.
The National were interested. Very interested. They made introductions and the Gielgud Theatre said, in principle, we could probably do something. I talked to Ben Sparks - maths presenter, musician and a fan of Curious. He could immediately see the potential, and we began to look through the book for material. Then we went to Matt Parker and Hannah Fry and both were keen to be involved.
*Spoiler alert - If you haven't yet seen the play, or are coming to our show, you may want to jump to the bottom of the blog*
At the very end of the play, Christopher performs a mathematical proof that answers an A Level maths question (it is the Appendix of Mark Haddon's book). Thought - could our show begin with Christopher doing the Appendix? Maybe our show could pick up where the show ended.
We asked, and were told - yes, that would be possible.
Eighteen months later we are all set to perform the first of six sold-out shows. The original idea has evolved a little. The first part of our show explores ideas from the book, using a projector to bring the static text to life. We touch on the logical deductions of Sherlock Holmes; the maths of finding your way around the city; and how the fluctuations of frog populations lead to some beautiful patterns.
In the second half of the show, we remove the props and screens on stage to reveal the whole Curious Incident set in all its glory - opening with Christopher performing The Appendix with the full lighting effects from the show. It's spectacular. Matt then discusses with Christopher his thoughts on maths and the production of the show, and reveals how Bunny Christie designed the set. Ben then explains how Adrian Sutton used maths (especially prime numbers) to compose the play's music. And we finish with an audience Q&A.
We're calling it: The Curious Coincidence of Maths in the Day-Time.
It's a huge privilege to have been allowed to collaborate with one of the most popular West End productions of recent times.
And it all happened because, by coincidence, the most mathematical set in London originated at The National Theatre.