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Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation
Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation

Few books have had such a profound effect on the history of mankind than that published in 1859. It expounded a theory that was not only revolutionary but also ran deeply at odds with the religious beliefs of the time. The book was called “On the Origin of Species” and the life of its prime author are the subject of Arthur Meek’s play Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation which is receiving its European premiere at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.

The play takes place over a period of years following the voyage on HMS Beagle and sees an invalid Charles Darwin (Gavin Harrington-Odedra) in his home being tended by his loving wife Emma (Paula James) while he works on his theories of the development of life on earth. Also in the household is Darwin’s servant/friend from his Beagle days, the irrepressible Joseph Gardner (Richard Houghton-Evans) who assists Charles in his research. A frequent visitor to the Darwin’s home is another friend from the Beagle days, John Roberts (Michael Tuffnell) a noted scientist, highly placed in the scientific societies of the day. Charles’ work is proceeding gently and then one day, Alfred Thomas (Richard Stranks) domes to see Charles. Thomas has been comparing birds that Darwin picked up on a group of islands during his voyages. And today, he has astounding news for Charles. After a lot of thought and research, Thomas is able to confirm that while all of the birds are indeed finches, they are all different species. This suggests to both Darwin and Roberts that whilst the birds are all descended from the original version of the Finch, they have, over time become more adapted to their various habitats. This revelation starts a chain of events that challenges the very foundations of received wisdom and will turn scientist against scientist and friend against friend.

The story of Charles Darwin, his voyages and the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ is really quite fascinating, and a quick trip through Wikipedia will give you a real feel for this amazing man and his life. Arthur Meek has certainly captured some of this in his writing. The relationship between the characters is at the heart of the play and it is interesting how they change over the course of its run – two hours ten including interval. It was good to get a glimpse of Darwin’s home life, and especially his relationship with Emma who, while often seemingly exacerbated by her husband is a constant source of strength and support.

And speaking of Emma, full praise to Paula James for her portrayal of Darwin’s wife. She was a true Victorian spouse. The real power behind the throne, keeping everything running whilst her husband got on with his work. Polite with the guests – even when throwing one out – haughty with the servants but at all times affectionate and caring for Charles. All of these facets to the character permeate Paula’s performance and made Emma very believable. The same can be said of Richard Houghton-Evans as Gardner. In many ways, a bit of a comedic character – often need to break up the slow and prodigious progress or the story – but again, with that real affection for the Darwin’s that shines through. Even though Emma is often rude to him, there is a nice banter-like fee to their interactions that shows the relaxed atmosphere between the family and this particular servant. A great pair of performances.

Director Jessica Jeffries has set the story in the round and rotates the stage at the end of each scene. I guess this is to give a sense of time as, although the story takes place over a good many years, apart from some exposition in the dialogue, there would be no other way to know how much time had passed. Personally, I would have suggested some changes to the costumes but the rotating scenery (designed by Sophie James Frost) does the job, though sometimes leads to awkward sightlines with characters having their back to portions of the audience.

Overall, I’m afraid Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation really didn’t work for me. I found it heavy going and, despite the potential of the subject, I found my attention wandering at times. Part of the problem was those things that were left unexplained, particularly Darwin’s affliction and health problems. Emma’s concern for him was obvious but there were no explanations of his ailments. This was annoying and left me feeling a tad frustrated. Whilst the acting, on the whole, was okay, the production felt as if it needed a few more days to fully bring it together.

2 gold stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation recounts the courage of a visionary who must battle his conscience to change the world and find the strength to face the fallout. Arthur Meek’s award-winning play gives a heartfelt account of what happens when faith and reason collide.

This European premiere of Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation marks the 160th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Arthur Meek brings the bewhiskered Darwin to life in his play, showing us his funny, loving, obsessive and eccentric sides and his competitive nature. Capital Times

Kākāriki theatre company is dedicated to showcasing great New Zealand writing and theatre. Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation is their first production in the UK and they are proud to be showcasing Arthur Meek, a great New Zealand writer.

Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation
by Arthur Meek
produced by Kākāriki Theatre Company
Tuesday 20 – Saturday 31 August 2019 at 7.30pm
https://brockleyjack.co.uk/

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