In a Musical About Penicillin’s Inventor, Superbugs Take Center Stage

They received funding from the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which in turn led to backing from a powerful figure: Dame Sally Davies, who was then Britain’s chief medical officer. She was so concerned about antimicrobial resistance, she said, that it is now on Britain’s “risk register,” along with pandemics and bioterrorism, as a security threat.

The show has had sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe festival and has also played in London and Glasgow — with mold spelled “mould.” It opens with Fleming, played by Jeremy Rose, at the end of his life, encountering an otherworldly, barefoot Mother Earth figure named Rose, played by Emily Bull.

Rose, the Mother Earth character, hovers over the story as a kind of narrator, bringing Fleming back and forward in time. Two ethereal-looking circus performers, dressed in flowing psychedelic colors, appear throughout the musical, spinning on an acrobat’s wheel. Hiley envisioned them as the “Gram twins,” representing two different types of bacteria: Gram-positive and Gram-negative. (Penicillin treats Gram-positive infections.)

The audience sees the young Army private bidding farewell to the London Scottish Regiment, where he has served for 14 years. (“Private 6392, this mess hall honors you!” the cast sings.) Soon it is 1914, and Fleming is in Bologne, France, tending to soldiers — some from his old unit — facing death from exposure to poison and shrapnel wounds that turn into deadly infections.

He cries at the uselessness of it all: “These men came to war prepared to die to protect their homeland, their families, their friends — not to be poisoned by gas, gangrene, harmless cuts; infected by horse manure on the fields on which they fought!”


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