Clowning for molecules

Clowning for molecules

A British theatre group seeks to popularise hard science and chemistry with the help of a lighthearted play that features a bumbling detective and his learned chemist friend


Actors from CSI for Clowns – Palfi (left) and Jonathan Beedell.
Actors from CSI for Clowns – Palfi (left) and Jonathan Beedell.
Photo: Niki Fisher
Doing chemistry is no laughing matter – unless you’re working with laughing gas.

Thankfully, though, CSI for Clowns is a science drama that takes a light-hearted approach to the dreary world of atoms and molecules.

Despite its name, the show has very little to do with the popular CSI television series.

“It’s just a good way to draw people in,” says Jonathan Beedell, artistic director of Desperate Men, an outdoor performance troupe from Bristol, England, which is behind the show.

“We’ve actually watched some of the CSI shows and they’re awful,” he adds.

Like in the TV show, the plot involves a detective solving a crime with the help of a forensic chemist. Don’t expect anything gruesome, though.

“It’s very light-hearted. The detective is very much in the mould of the classic American detective Philip Marlowe and he’s a bit stupid.

“The chemist is trying to help him solve what seems to be a crime or a strange mystery by introducing him to various elements he may find,” explains Beedell, who plays the part of the chemist Dr Litmus.

The actor admits that he knew very little about chemistry when they began to develop the show. So he knew he had to keep things straightforward and simple.

“We have to make the dialogue simple enough so we [actors] can understand,” he says, laughing.

“There will be a little bit of actual chemistry going on. There are a lot of rather ridiculous props, but they all relate to elements from the periodic table, atoms, molecules, and allotropes.”

The writers took interesting facts they came across in their research and put a comical spin on them for the show. These include fun facts such as that we share 60 per cent of our genes with a banana. “So in fact we are 60 per cent banana,” Beedell jokes.

CSI for Clowns is part of the British Council’s Science Alive 2011 Festival, which aims to increase understanding of science through lively and interactive events such as dramas, workshops and lectures.

The show is brand new and was co-commissioned for a science festival in Portugal.

“We realised that lots of people are taking up forensic chemistry because of the popularity of CSI. So we thought we can base [our show] around that,” Beedell says.

He believes in the popularisation of science through the arts. “I think there should be a lot more of it,” he notes.

“[But] it’s really hard to translate some science into accessible material. It can be very hard to find analogies, metaphors, or visuals that [can explain complex theories], but doing it with a lot of humour helps.”

That’s just what CSI for Clowns aims to achieve. Shows like this, Beedell says, can help change “how you think about things. I’ve seen children transformed by a street theatre show”.

CSI for Clowns will be performed at the Hong Kong Science Museum on November 19-20. For details, visit



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