BWW Review: SEA SHAMBLES, Royal Albert Home
Following on from their 2018 Space Shambles, the Cosmic Shambles Network was due to make a return to the Royal Albert Hall for Sea Shambles - a celebration of the Blue Planet by way of science, music, and comedy. Instead, a re-jigged version took place as part of the Stay At Home Festival this weekend; a blue whale-like show of around three-and-a-half hours, an exceptional range of contributors were featured, including the likes of Lemn Sissay, Dr Helen Scales, Josie Long, and (naturally) Prof Brian Cox.
Hosted by Robin Ince (in his "scientifically peer-reviewed corduroy") and Helen Czerski, one of the key aims for the evening was to show the "physiology" of the ocean and - according to Czerski - "how complex and beautiful it all is". The words of legendary physicist Richard Feynman were definitely proven to be pertinent: "The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man."
As well as promoting chosen marine charities Oceana, Bite-Back, and Surfers Against Sewage, there was also the option for viewers to support the Royal Albert Hall or add to the Stay At Home Festival 'tip jar'.
Adventurer and wildlife presenter Steve Backshall was the first guest, and his isolation backdrop of a clear and empty river Thames was ideal for his focus on local nature ("the bugs are absolutely loving it!"). At a time when it all appears to be doom and gloom, we need to take some positives where we can - and the "explosion of life" in the natural world has definitely been one of them, with an increase in mayflies bringing the birds out in droves, plus more ducklings managing to survive than normal. Later on Backshall returned to advocate for the much-maligned shark, sharing an interesting stat that you're far more likely to die taking a selfie than in a shark attack.
Representing the arts early on were MD Steve Pretty, who performed a piece with the Origin of the Pieces (which saw some of them attempting to play instruments underwater), and Lemn Sissay, who took a break from ploughing through the Booker Prize list to read an excerpt from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Both pieces showed how influential and inspiring the ocean can be to artists; as well as the "Christian undertones", Sissay feels that Coleridge's poem shows the "damage that we do to the environment", which remains important now - whereas Pretty spoke of his experiences night-diving as feeling "like another planet".
Jim Moray's pirate-inspired folk song later on showed another way the sea has shaped human culture, as did an all-star reading of an extract from "Moby Dick". With Dunja Lavrova providing a haunting musical accompaniment, Sara Pascoe, Luke Wright, Ben Bailey Smith, Reece Shearsmith (in his own homemade storytelling grotto), Cobie Smulders, and others took turns to read some of Herman Melville's classic. Indie band British Sea Power - who were confirmed to be performing at the Hall - also featured at several points throughout the show.
What was really fascinating was the insights from more space-centric figures: astronaut and former fighter pilot Chris Hadfield, and physicist and broadcaster Prof Brian Cox. Hadfield looked at seafaring exploits from an engineering perspective, taking the audience through the history of water travel, with Viking's longboats as the "spaceship" of their time; once humanity felt they had "conquered the seas", of course, it was time to move on to space - and it was fun to speculate about the ice jets of Enceladus, as well as Star Trek's USS Enterprise.
Back in 2013, Cox's third Wonders series was shown (Wonders of Life); during filming he encountered an octopus and got a real sense of its intelligence - so much so that he will no longer eat them ("and I eat pretty much everything!"). He also spoke of the presence of water elsewhere in space, such as on Jupiter's moon Europa, and historically on Mars and possibly Venus - Pluto may also have some pockets of water below the surface. Though oceans are most associated with Earth - and are why the planet has been so successful in maintaining life - it's interesting to contrast our situation with our nearest neighbours in the Solar System.
In spite of being based in a room in Brighton, Seb Lee Delisle was still able to delight us with some lasers towards the end of the show - sadly not on the scale of his plan to make the Royal Albert Hall stalls seats look as though they had been submerged in water, but projecting some jellyfish onto the side of a building was definitely impressive in the circumstances.
Though something of a marathon, it was a joy to immerse myself in all things aquatic for the evening; Cosmic Shambles provided the perfect blend of education and entertainment, making it an enlightening experience from start to finish - with the finest collection of video call backgrounds on display since this crisis began.