Cosmic Shambles: A review

Imagine you wanted to somehow ensnare me, specifically, in an elaborate trap, but you needed a sure-fire way of luring me into triggering it. Something that would definitely attract me onto the delicately balanced platform you’d constructed, setting your Rube Goldberg-esque plans into motion. The perfect bait.

Well – and please appreciate that I am putting myself at significant risk of future entrapment by revealing this – on paper, Cosmic Shambles Live would certainly fit the bill. A variety show combining comedy, science and music? Hosted by Robin Ince and featuring Josie Long? You wouldn’t even need to finish the sentence before I’d be leaping onto the trap’s platform, releasing the army of eels you’ve diligently spent the last several months training.

In short, although I wasn’t 100% sure of what to expect, I had high hopes – and for the most part, Cosmic Shambles didn’t let me down.

For me the standout act was Matt Parker, partly because I would not have anticipated being so thoroughly engaged by what was essentially a maths lesson. His demonstration of how to derive Pi using… a steak & cheese pie(!) was some of the best science communication I’ve ever seen, and was also hilarious.

Josie Long was similarly excellent, despite being under the weather, with an experiment designed to determine whether or not the Opera House was haunted (results were inconclusive); as was local guest James Nokise, who in a just world would have his own late night political comedy TV show by now (even if he did insist on describing politics as a “science” rather than by the more accurate description “clusterfuck”). Robin Ince himself was a consummate host, warm and self-deprecating; this kind of science-themed variety show is very much his baby, and it shows.

There was some fascinating science on offer, too – not all of it as engagingly presented as Matt Parker’s stuff, but interesting all the same. From Siouxie Wiles’ presentation about antibiotic resistance, through Lucie Green’s talk about the Sun’s magnetic fields and Helen Czerski’s tales of her work in bubble physics, you could almost feel your head brimming with new information. Even the acts which didn’t entirely fly still managed to impart some fascinating stuff.

At three and a half hours long, Cosmic Shambles never felt like wearing out its welcome, but the closest it got was possibly during the musical interludes, the first of which in particular seemed like an unusual fit. However Jon Toogood did a serviceable job of closing out the show, filling out his own repertoire with topical covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Australian Crawl, and giving the audience something of a palate cleanser before sending them on their way.

As with any variety show, there were highlights and lowlights – but thankfully in this case the former far outweighed the latter. A science-themed variety show featuring comedy and music therefore remains an excellent way of luring me into an elaborate trap.


Coda by Lord Sutch

I too went and saw Cosmic Shambles (in fact I was sitting next to Jarrod. Lucky Jarrod). I just wanted to add a couple of points that are slightly less glowing than Jarrod’s.

I found the format a bit jarring. Yes, it’s a variety show so there’ll be a mixture of acts but the comedians were so polished, so slick, that it really magnified the shortcomings in some of the scientists who didn’t quite have their panache at presenting.

Also, I found the show-length to be … long. Too long for me. But that might be reflective of my attention span rather than anything else.

And then some of the science seemed dumbed down. I mean obviously it would have been dumbed down because these were some of the most experty experts in their field, in the world. And we were laypeople. That said, I was left wanting more from a couple of the acts; some of what they presented didn’t really amount to what. I wanted to know so what?

And then finally I had a real issue with the content of one of the scientists. They presented footage of the Challenger Shuttle exploding with commentary. The commentary highlighted the fact that Christa McAuliffe was the first civilian to fly in a shuttle and had repeated shots of her parents watching the launch and subsequent explosion. It was harrowing and distressing and for no gain. The same point could have been made by the scientist without showing us something fucking awful.

That said, I enjoyed the show a lot. Perhaps not as much as I was expecting to, but still a good show.


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