An interview with… Festival of the Spoken Nerd

By Martha Bozic

You Can’t Polish a Nerd is the latest in a string of pun-laden live science comedy shows created and delivered by ‘geeky trio’ Steve Mould, Helen Arney and Matt Parker.

This is the third outing for the group, who “tour a new show every few years”, according to Mould.

Their style is quite literally all bells and whistles, with Arney providing musical interludes and accompaniment throughout the show. Having previously “serenaded Jon Snow on Channel 4 News”, this time she promises to “sing all 118 elements of the Periodic Table in under two minutes.”

If that’s not impressive enough, she has also previously smashed a wine glass with her voice, videos of which can be found on Youtube.

For Parker, a highlight of his performance is “[when] I use a combination of mathematics, computer programming and geometry to high-five myself in another dimension.” This aptly sets the tone for Festival of the Spoken Nerd. Between them, they possess the niche but surprisingly applicable talent of taking subjects which are for many unrelatable – and often mocked – like maths and programming; doing something seen as uncool – and often mocked – like high-fiving yourself, and turning it into an informative and entertaining comedy spectacle.

It’s everything you would expect from a show that promises to “[put] the recursion into recursion”. More impressively, perhaps, they manage to do this without becoming the butt of the joke themselves.

They are, however, careful to stress that this is not just a performance for scientists or hardcore geeks. The “science comedy extravaganza”, as Mould describes it, should be equally accessible “to people who just like watching The Big Bang Theory.”

The last time I saw them was in 2015 at their second live show Just for Graphs, and I can confirm that you won’t just be paying to watch a particularly polished lecture. All three are natural performers, and grace the stage with their energy, comedic timing, and a well-rehearsed precision.

Between them, the trio have many TV credits to their names – most notably an appearance on QI – and have a “genuinely experimental” comedy show, Domestic Science, on BBC Radio 4. They have also performed at venues ranging from the Hammersmith (now Eventim) Apollo and Latitude Festival, to the British Library and the Royal Institution. The Gala theatre, packed with an audience of mildly geeky students, should therefore sit quite comfortably in the middle of their range.

Mould, the “experiments guy”, was once a presenter on Blue Peter, and can be often be found playing with real fire. As such, you shouldn’t be surprised if his sections of the show really do ‘go out with a bang.’

As well as taking vaguely hazardous experiments to stages around the country, Arney and Mould have written a popular science book ‘The Element In The Room’, which was released this October. Parker jokes that having written a book before, he passed up the offer, “[knowing] that the correct answer was ‘no’.”

Describing himself as a ‘stand-up mathematician’, Parker holds the prestigious title of London Mathematical Society Popular Lecturer. As a student, he says, he “saw comedy writing as a hobby alongside my actual mathematical studies.” Despite this, “on reflection, it was clearly what I was better at.”

In an email exchange with Palatinate he tells me of an incident with “a bunch of liquid nitrogen” reminiscent of the kind of science he now does on stage. After tipping it “all over the floor… it proceeded to freeze and shrink all the carpet tiles, [leaving] a room with exposed concrete and comically small carpet squares!”

It should be noted, however, that the experiments in their show are far less dangerous and more intentional than such student antics. Indeed, science has never been more showbiz.

So maybe you can’t polish a nerd, but if you want to see one rolled in glitter, watch this space.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd are performing at the Gala Theatre, Durham on Saturday 4th November. 

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