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Darwin in Malibu

Crispin Whittell
The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre
(2003)

Malibu, California. It's hot; almost too hot. Ideal for drinking milk shakes and bird watching. Anything else would be too energetic.

An old man with a white beard in casual shirt and shorts. He's discussing with a girl young enough to be his daughter the idiosyncrasies of the human condition which mean we pursue courses of events we know will hurt us.

This is Charles Darwin. He believes he left behind decades ago the shockingly intense controversy he instigated when he wrote The Origin of Species. After all, this is 120 years after his death. Now he's content to immerse himself in nothing more contentious than horoscopes and novels destined to be read on a beach. Pat Booth's Malibu for example.

But without warning two people come into his life. The first visitor is his old friend Thomas Huxley, a passionate defender of Darwin's theory who is credited with the invention of the term agnosticism. Then the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, appears.

In 1860, the year after The Origin of Species was published, Wilberforce and Huxley had clashed at the British Association's annual meeting in Oxford. Wilberforce had asked Huxley whether his ape ancestor was on his grandfather's or grandmother's side. Huxley replied he would rather have an ape for his grandfather than a bishop!

Darwin in Malibu has the three of them debating not only where man came from but also where we're going and where God, heaven, life, science, Noah's ark and evil partridges fit in.

It sounds heavy but that's far from reality. It's a witty comedy which rattles along and almost has you sweating with admiration in the Californian sunshine.

In this world premiere John Dove, an associate director at Hampstead Theatre, has made few changes to Crispin Whittell's vision of the play (the script doubles up as the programme). Michael Taylor's design, a simply effective, wooden deck, makes you feel as close to the action as a pelican in the adjoining Pacific.

Sylvester Morand is a laid-back Darwin, too concerned with watching "extraordinary specimens walking along the beach" to worry about anything profound. As he points out, "who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery?"

Bruce Alexander, better known as Superintendent Mullett in A Touch of Frost, is an animated, irascible Huxley who petulantly jumps up and down when Wilberforce wants him to persuade Darwin that he should believe in God.

Michael Elwyn (Wilberforce) is almost a stereotypical bishop (perhaps they WERE all like that in the 1860s) until he ridiculously and memorably reaches the conclusion that the bible should be his robes and he has no need for clothes.

All three give virtually faultless, inspiring performances. And Cressida Whyte, who makes her professional debut as Sarah, gives an accomplished performance as the American girl who is not all she seems.

Rep productions regularly transfer to London and that will surely be the fate of Darwin in Malibu. It is well-constructed, clever and thought-provoking. It'll no doubt go far. Maybe even to Darwin and Malibu.

"Darwin in Malibu" runs until May 31st

Philip Fisher reviews the London production at the Hampstead Theatre

Reviewer: Steve Orme