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Interview with Rhys Morgan of Morgan & West!

We caught up with Rhys from Morgan and West to chat all about their upcoming show, Unbelievable Science, on our stage this half term!

You have been working together for over a decade, how exactly did you first meet?

We were both studying for science degrees at Oxford University, I for a physics degree and Rob (Mr. West) was reading chemistry. I say studying for degrees, what we were actually doing was using our degrees as a rather paper-thin cover story to be involved with as much theatre as we could. We first met in a production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters and bonded over a love of Eddie Izzard and Look Around You – a cult tv show which parodied the old Open University videos we’d all watch in science lessons in school. It wasn’t long before we were writing musicals and other shows together and eventually, we decided to form a double act. We both had a passing interest in magic and so made that our focus. The rest, as they say, is history…

And you were also teachers, at the same school no less?

Indeed, after our degrees we trained as secondary school teachers of science and mathematics and taught side by side (not literally of course, team teaching is brilliant but there’s only so much double act work that you can do in one day…) at King Alfred’s in Wantage.

How scary was it to leave teaching in order to become the duo Morgan & West?

Enormously terrifying. At the time, we had done two runs of magic shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and were also doing small shows in village halls the length and breadth of the UK. We would go into school on a Monday completely exhausted having been performing in Cumbria the night before. Things took a big leap forward for us in the summer of 2011 when we appeared on Penn and Teller: Fool Us (ITV) where we fooled the eponymous Las Vegas magic duo. We took this (and the bags under our eyes) as a sign that we had to make a choice between teaching (which we loved) and performing (which we loved). We chose performing and spent the next eight years touring the country and indeed the world with our magic shows.

Morgan & West appear to be Victorian gentlemen, where did the idea for the characters come from?

We love dressing up and what better excuse to wear frock coats, double breasted waistcoats, and brightly patterned cravats than Victorian fashion? The facial hair it affords you is pretty fun too. We were also very much influenced at the time by the golden era of magic, when the line between conjuring and reality was blurred – much like the line between mind reading and reality is these days. All in all, it’s excellent fun to play characters on stage who are a little larger than life.

With a decade of touring magic shows, why have you now turned your hand to family science fun?

Science education has always been an important part of our lives starting with fantastic teachers at school, through our degrees, and into our (admittedly brief) teaching careers. We’ve been searching for a way to come back to this through our shows and we finally decided to take the plunge, put down the deck of cards and pick up the test tube rack. We were always known for our rather irreverent and fun approach to magic, so it’s time to carry that same sense of silliness over to science! In many ways it’s a real reaction to a time where experts in their field can be shouted down and ignored by people with louder and vastly less experienced voices than them. We want to show people that science is fun, and this not only is it alright to trust people who have spent their lives studying it, it’s very much the right thing to do. It’s a fine line to tread to do this without lecturing or preaching and we like to think that we’ve managed it pretty well.

What can we expect from Unbelievable Science?

It’s a big, flashy, fun, silly, over-the-top extravaganza for all the family to enjoy together. Plenty of explosions, live experiments, lightning on stage, optical illusions, and whole host of nonsense play over a theme of what the scientific method is all about and why scientists do things the way that they do.

Since you both studied different sciences at university, which one is better?

Of course, I’m going to say physics and Mr. West would say chemistry but there’s an easy answer to your question – neither. They’re all part of a bigger picture and that’s the best thing about science, it’s all linked up somewhere and the quest to find those links is what makes it so fascinating.

Is there anything in the show that is dangerous to do?

Our risk assessment is a weighty tome and everything is done very carefully in the show as there are a few bits that could be rather dangerous if mishandled. You really want to know what you’re doing when 230,000 Volts is being generated a mere 50cm from your face…

So, has anything ever gone wrong on stage?

Apart from the usual missed lines and theatrical mess-ups you mean? Actually yes, yes it has. We spent August at the Edinburgh Fringe doing the show every day and one time one of our chemistry experiments went off a bit early. By that I mean we’d got some water where it shouldn’t have been and as a result there was a small explosion in Mr. West’s hand. Thankfully it was short lived and he only had a few minor burns – had he not been wearing his safety goggles it would have been a different matter! Since then we’ve rechecked the procedure for everything dangerous and altered that one slightly to ensure that can’t happen again. What a day that was!

Finally, what’s your favorite part of the show?

Personally, I love a good ‘dad’ joke, the kind of joke where the whole audience groans but still rather enjoys themselves. There’s a particularly good one in this but I can’t say any more else it’ll spoil the surprise! Science-wise we do a live experiment on the audience and I’m always amazed at how well it works. It’s all to do with sound and, as far as we can tell, it’s never been done like we’re doing it before. It’s astonishing to witness how successful it is every night.

Morgan & West: Unbelievable Science will be at the Corn Exchange on Sunday 30 October, at 2pm.