Preview: No Horizon

When teacher Andy Platt heard about blind 18th century Yorkshire mathematician Nicholas Saunderson, he was so inspired that he gave up his job to write a musical about him

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With the phrase “new musical” routinely applied to a confection of already familiar pop tunes lashed to a flimsy storyline, ideally linked to an old film or TV series, what chance then for a new and wholly original musical based on the almost completely forgotten story of an 18th century mathematical genius from a small village in Yorkshire?

Yet after nearly two decades of trying, the team behind new musical No Horizon is on the verge of bringing to a broader public the inspiring story of Nicholas Saunderson, a remarkable scientist and mathematician who re-wrote the rules about what was possible for a blind man in his day. Born in the tiny Yorkshire village of Thurlstone in January 1682, Saunderson lost his sight through smallpox when barely a year old, which didn’t prevent him from learning Latin and Greek, as well as studying mathematics, having, it is said, taught himself to read by running his fingers over the gravestones in the church yard in nearby Penistone. His brilliant mathematical breakthroughs were crucial to much modern mathematical thinking, and so highly regarded was he that rules were bent specifically for him to take up an exalted post as professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, a position held before him by Isaac Newton, later by Charles Babbage and Stephen Hawking. He was also a member of the Royal Society and at the height of his fame was well acquainted with kings and queens of Europe. Yet today, if you search hard enough, you might come across a yellowing bust of him at a small outdoor swimming pool at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Other than that, his astonishing tale of triumph over adversity has largely been airbrushed from history.

Writer Andy Platt was deputy head at a primary school in Penistone when he first heard of Saunderson from a fellow teacher.

“I used to do school assembles about inspirational people like Helen Keller, so when she told me about this entirely uncelebrated bloke on our doorstep, I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls.

“Saunderson’s story captured my imagination because he rose from such humble origins to achieve such brilliance. He was the archetypal Yorkshireman, he wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, and socially, as a man from the sticks he would have been very different from any other academics at the time.”

So fired up was Platt about this aspirational figure that, after writing a community musical for the school, he left his secure job to pen an adult version of the musical, determined to one day see it performed on the West End stage.

“It’s been a long journey and we’ve had to learn a lot during those 17 years. But Saunderson’s story was about taking on the world,” he laughs. “We’re very proud that this new version has a partially-sighted professional actor playing Saunderson and also a director who is partially-sighted himself.

“The great musicals tend to be about big themes, and Saunderson’s story is perfect.  No Horizon is about a dream, it’s about courage, passion and love.”

No Horizon opens at the Civic, Barnsley, 19-21 March, touring to the Halifax Viaduct Theatre (26-28 March); Leeds City Varieties (31 March- 1 April); Cast, Doncaster (2-4 April); Harrogate Theatre (7-8 April); York Theatre Royal (9-11 April); and Millgate Arts Centre, Delph, Saddleworth (15 April)

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