Secret Life of Humans

David Byrne

New Diorama with Greenwich Theatre and Pleasance

Pleasance Courtyard

From 14 August 2017 to 28 August 2017

Rating: ****

Review by Amy Yorston

Few programmes include a suggested reading list on their back page, but it feels wholly appropriate that The Secret Life of Humans does so.

Weaving together the true story of Jacob Bronowski (he of Ascent of Man fame) and the fictional tale of his grandson on a date (that takes an unexpectedly scientific direction), the show asks big questions about what it means to be human, where we came from and where we’re headed.

Taking inspiration from Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens, the script is littered with ideas and theories about mankind, mingling science with philosophy. Informative, completely engaging but occasionally preachy, the choice to have the central character such an expert does occasionally lead to a sermon-like feel.

The character of Ava, however, is the audience’s guide through the concepts and the academic link to Bronowski’s work, so an air of smugness can be forgiven. When her date with Jamie takes an unusual turn, they find themselves in Bronowski’s previously locked room, looking through documents and making discoveries about his contribution to the war effort.

And while the show might be posing provocative questions about the future of humanity it also cleverly displays sides of human nature in the present. Ava sees the findings as an opportunity for a book or paper, the actions of the past a matter for historical record, factual and cold.

Conversely, Jamie considers his family name, the emotional impact and the man behind the calculations. It’s all a matter of perception and perspective.

Secret Life of Humans isn’t just an intellectual play to ponder, though; the visuals are a very clever touch and the design team utilises stunts, projections and simple but effective moving set pieces to evoke offices, libraries, a locked room, a gigantic chalkboard and the cosmos.

It’s not real, of course; Ava makes it clear in her opening monologue that it’s all theatre but also points out that it’s no less real than the money in our pockets that we have decided to give worth to and the laws that we’ve decided to create.

A fascinating but rather clinical hour of theatre, Secret Life of Humans is intriguing and thought provoking but fails to land either an emotional or theatrical punch.