Timandra Harkness is one of a handful of female names and voices familiar to those Radio 4 listeners who do not retune or switch off when the science, maths & statistics programmes come on. Her current touring show (funded by the Wellcome Trust) aims to educate the general populace in basic brain science and the difference between the genders.
It must be an uphill struggle to get an audience for this kind of event: a large proportion of the population regard any science as “not for them”; and, of course, these are the very people the Wellcome Trust would like her to reach. Hence the catchy, attention-grabbing title “Brainsex”.
It is also a challenge to pitch a show like this at the right level, to be able to introduce and discuss scientific concepts which are completely new to some members of the audience but regarded as basic general knowledge by others, by giving them a new slant which is informative and accessible to some, novel and amusing to others, and enlightening and entertaining to all. Fortunately, Timandra is a seasoned performer and science communicator, and she pulls out every trick in the book to give her show the look and feel of a night of stand-up comedy.
Using the theatre as the skull, Timandra builds a model brain using the audience as the cortex, the sound & lighting guy as the pre-frontal cortex, a filing cabinet for the thalamus, etc. Her show includes humorous quasi-Skyped interactions with a pre-filmed Professor of Cognitive Science, the thoughts of her co-star Socrates (a tame, trained pet white rat) projected in thought bubbles on the backdrop, and a variety of pantomime techniques, including volunteers on stage, the throwing of chocolate coins (as rewards or “dopamine” from the “substantia nigra”), a panoply of increasingly crazy costumes and even an audience sing-along brain song. And lots of gags.
There was plenty of thought-provoking material along the way, interesting statistics, ideas, facts and figures on the differences between male and female; but at the end the take-home message was that none of us has a “male brain” or a “female brain”: that we all have human brains and that they are constantly growing and developing with every second, depending on how we use them. This might be a politically correct message, but it was not entirely consonant with all that had gone before. The one way in which male and female brains were said to be actually anatomically different (males having more white matter, females more grey matter) was not explored and I would have liked to hear a little more about the implications of that.
The only improvement I’d suggest would be further engagement and collaboration with the audience, eliciting more reactions, suggestions, opinions and questions from them. Timandra is a tough cookie, skilled at repartee, and could surely handle that. For example, at the beginning of the show we were given simple little questionnaires to complete, which were collected in the interval, on our gender, childhood ambitions, favourite dressing-up costumes, actual adult careers, etc. It was disappointing that no use was made of these during the show – I am sure they would have provided some fruitful material! Perhaps they will provide the basis for some later production; if so, I look forward to seeing it.