The connection between physics, and writing for the stage, is not immediately apparent, unless you have a mind like Lizzy Mansfield. And Lizzy is unusual, different, a woman who sees the world in strange and wonderful ways. So when it transpires that her debut play, Supernova, is about love, grief and….physics, audiences are taking notice.
In a nutshell, Supernova, which ends a tour this week at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, is about a woman who tries rewriting the laws of the universe from her kitchen, using a toaster. There’s time travel involved, as well, and after talking to Lizzy one feels compelled to say, of course there is.
Lizzy, who comes from Newcastle, is 27 with a face that means she is always asked for proof of her age in shops and bars. And if she looks young, well that’s maybe because she refuses to grow up. “I’m trying very hard not to. As a kid, I loved reading writers like Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman… pretty much anything which had a fantasy universe and an epic quest. And I still do.”
She’s a storyteller who understands a little more than most about how the world works, and after an early disappointment when her first story – about an elephant – didn’t even get published, let alone win the Booker Prize, she decided to be an astronaut. She was eight at the time.
“But then I realised that astronauts miss out on loads of great stuff like chips and birthday parties.” What was fun, Lizzy discovered, was being on stage. She joined First Act Theatre in Newcastle as a child, and later started making films at the Tyneside Cinema’s Northern Stars Filmmaking Academy, “a hobby which continued through university and then turned into my job. Having these kinds of opportunities available in the North East – and across the UK – is so important for young people. They made me realise that pursuing a creative career was a viable option and gave me the confidence to do so.”
But in between was the degree in physics and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, because it sounded interesting. “And it was. I got to learn about the most fundamental things we’ve discovered about the universe, from time’s arrow to the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. Real physics is often weirder than anything you could makeup. And I’ve been able to use the ideas I found there to tell stories.”
While seeing her own play take to the stage at London’s 503 Theatre, after reaching the final of a competition at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Lizzy is working as writers’ assistant on the Ted Lasso comedy TV series. “That’s loads of fun. It’s great to see how comedy scripts are built and developed.” Her short film, An Inorganic Love Story, screened at Cannes Film Festival 2019. She’s also in the early stages of talks about a possible TV adaptation of Supernova.
But how does it seem on the stage? The young couple, Lucy and Phil, are played by Adeola Yemitan (recently in the RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing) and Emilio Iannucci (best known for his appearance in the film The Death of Stalin). It’s a very personal story, directed by Fay Lomas, about love, grief, and trying to go back to the past. Lucy, a scientist, is struggling to cope with the death of her father. So she grips hold of the only thing she can rely on – physics – and uses that to try and go back in time, not to “remember” her father but actually re-live time with him. Her first experiment is to un-burn toast; her partner Phil watches, helplessly, telling her “we are more than just atoms”.
What begins as literally kitchen sink drama with domestic comedy becomes, ultimately, very disturbing. We laugh when Lucy brings a duvet into the kitchen to represent the universe, and see her point when she uses bananas and oranges to demonstrate a scientific theory. We start to become concerned when ten toasters appear in the kitchen, and her behaviour slides from eccentric to odd. Dissociation is a scientific process but also a mental health disorder, and a love story starts to fall apart.
There’s exquisite chemistry, though, between the two actors, and at times a discomforting intimacy in Keswick’s lovely studio theatre. We are there with them, close enough to feel their pain, almost close enough to reach out to Lucy, to hug her and hold her. And that’s what Lizzy Mansfield was hoping for. She says: “I hope audiences find some kind of emotional resonance with the journey that Lucy and Phil go on. Of course, if they pick up some fundamental facts about time and space along the way, that’s a bonus! If someone told me they’d learnt physics by watching the play, I’d be thrilled.”
Image Credit: Nick Rutter