By Arthur Meek.
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London SE4 2JH to 31 August 2019.
Tues – Sat 7.30pm.
Runs 2hr 15 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 0333 666 3366
Review: William Russell 22 August.
Arthur Meek’s account of how Charles Darwin came to write the Origin of the Species and the furore that followed when those who believed in the Creation, and the superiority of white Christian men in particular, is interesting if episodic. By the end of a long evening I was far from sure the stuff of drama was actually there in his life although the New Zealand writer Arthur Meek has made a reasonable stab at creating his play said to be award winning. What is needed is more of the disrespect for the facts all those Hollywood biopics of the great and the good used to display which allow the actor playing the lead to do a bit of scenery chewing. It does not happen and I am not sure that Gavin Harrington-Odedra, who plays Darwin, is one of nature’s scenery chewers anyway.
His travels on the Beagle over, Darwin is back in England, married to his cousin Emma, begetting one of those immense Victorian families – she bore him ten children – while suffering from chronic ill health and over work. He is privately well off, but takes on various jobs and keeps on with his research. Emma, nicely played by Paula James, stands by him throughout his troubles and he is helped in his researches by a remarkably uppity gardener called Gardner effectively played by Richard Houghton-Evans. As he was evolving his theories Darwin was sent a paper by a young naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, here called Alfred Thomas, which was much along the same lines as his own work. The result was they both published their papers which were presented to the Linean Society on the same day although neither man was present and Darwin acknowledged the other man’s work when his book duly appeared. That is the missing biopic scene – firsts should have been raised, the pair should have been howled down by outraged believers in the seven days creation. Even if that did not happen it would have been thrilling and would have made the point about how revolutionary it all was.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural selection was hugely successful and controversial. His clash with the creationists of the time is illustrated with a friendship, which eventually comes to an end, with one John Roberts played by Michael Tuffnell, although whether he is real or invented I don’t know. Some of the debate with the pompous Roberts played by Michael Tuffnell is fascinating. But unfortunately nothing rings true, possibly because the actors play in modern dress which takes away from how these ideas were so radical, so offensive to those who believed God made the world according to the Bible. It should be topical given today’s Climate Change deniers but it doesn’t quite succeed.
Also director Jessica Jeffries involves the cast in a lot of pointless furniture shifting most notably at the end of Act One when everything is rearranged and then the audience is asked to leave the auditorium so that things can be re-set during the interval. This production is a bold venture and Darwin was a very great man worth knowing more about than we do but Meek’s play does not really succeed in bringing him back to life. The evening did, however, send me looking for more about him and I would imagine I was not alone. That is something worthwhile.
Charles Darwin: Gavin Harrington-Odedra.
Emma Darwin: Paula James.
Joseph Gardner: Richard Houghton-Evans.
John Roberts: Michael Tuffnell.
Alfred Thomas: Richard Stranks.
Director: Jessica Jeffries.
Stage & Costume Design: Sophie James Frost.
Lighting Design: Sam Thomas.
Sound Design: Nicola Chang.
Production photographs: Max Curtis.