Review: Fermat’s Last Tango

by Irina Husti-Radulet | April 15, 2023

If equations get you excited and sums get you salivating, then Fermat’s Last Tango is the show for you. The show fictionalises the real-life story of Andrew Wiles (named Daniel Keane in the musical) who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1993. The whole affair is sung: it’s a maths musical, or a trigonopera, if you will. Aptly staged at the Andrew Wiles building in the Mathematical Institute, Wiles’s proof, written on a whiteboard, greets you as you enter the auditorium. If it were not for the set designers listed on the programme, you would not think you had walked into a theatre set. As I take my seat and prop my reporter’s notebook open on one of the desks, I feel as though I am in a lecture, about to take notes on a thoroughly unfamiliar subject.

As expected, the play is full of nerdy jokes and maths references that fly swiftly over my head. It tells the story of Daniel Keane, a mathematician who, much like Rochester’s wife, spends most of his life holed up in an attic, attempting to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. When he thinks he’s managed to solve it, he rejoices at the chance to “reacquaint myself with my children and my wife”. Not so fast, Daniel. Enter Fermat (played by Siddiq Islam, with a posh drawling voice), his outfit topped with a curly wig that would send Marie Antoinette into spirals of envy. ‘How did you get into my attic, not to mention this century?’ a shocked Daniel asks. It soon transpires that Fermat is here to expose “a big fat hole” in Daniel’s proof. Plunged into an existential crisis, and mathematician drama Daniel’s soul-searching (performed by Lois Heslop, who is a better singer than actor) in an operatic voice – ensues.

Along the way, we meet The Aftermath (geddit?), a heavenly purgatory that is essentially a boyband of famous mathematicians. Featuring Pythagoras (Katie Le Poidevin), Euclid (Maya Chaudhuri), Newton (Imogen Lewis) and Gauss (Eugene Kim), this Fab Four of mathematics announce that “We worship all equations, the simple and quadratic”. They form a comical tableau vivant, some in togas, others in neckcloth and breeches. Newton clutches – what else? – an apple. They debate whether to grant Daniel admission to their exclusive members’ club, even if he is unable to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Ultimately, however, it is Anna, Daniel’s sick and tired wife, who steals the show. In Daniel’s ménage à trois with mathematics – which culminates in him dancing a bizarre three-person tango with Fermat and his wife – Anna is the Other Woman. “Math widow could be my epitaph’”, she bewails. Isabella Diaz Pascual plays the role of neglected wife with feisty charm as she battles Fermat for Daniel’s attention. The genuine Andrew Wiles, who saw the original musical in December 2000 with his family, later commented that “the whole idea of the threesome at the tango was beautifully done”. We can only wonder how his wife felt.

Overall, Fermat’s Last Tango is more of a feel-good show for maths nerds rather than a standout piece of theatre. The ending is facile (cue a moment of maths solidarity where Pythagoras announces “And so I pass the baton”, to which Fermat adds “And by the way, Danny – nice work’”), and none of the characters ever truly emerge as anything more than caricatures. But it’s good fun, nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed the ending, which involved three gigantic balloons spelling out QED. For the unversed and uninitiated among you (those of you who will not be granted access to the Aftermath), this is a mathematician’s way of concluding a text, showing that their overall argument has just been demonstrated. Finally, a joke I can join in the laughter for. ∎

Fermat’s Last Tango, directed by Anubhab Ghosal and Mario Marcos Losada, was showing at the Andrew Wiles Building, Mathematical Institute, 2-5 March 2023.

Words by Irina Husti-Radulet.