Darwin in Malibu

Crispin Whittell
Hampstead Theatre
(2004)

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Darwin in Malibu is a rather strange piece that has the feeling of some kind of drug-induced Pop Art experiment. It could possibly take its place next to Peter Blake's Madonna of Venice Beach or even Wayne's World with its anachronistic setting.

The action, or more accurately debate, takes place on the veranda of Simon Higlett's Swiss Family Robinson beach house in Malibu, California.

There, Charles Darwin resides with a dumb blonde called Sarah. What makes the play particularly unusual is that the date line is the current day. It does not take a genius to realise that Darwin should not have been here, having died over 120 years ago.

The bulk of the play consists of a three-way debate between the great evolutionist and two of his resurrected contemporaries, the creationist Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the scientist known as Darwin's Bulldog, Thomas Huxley.

At its best, Darwin in Malibu presents some interesting debates on philosophical and scientific matters, replicating those that must have taken place in the late 19th century. The difference is that, with today's hindsight, the man who would have been strongest at the time, the Bishop, looks like a blundering fool having nothing to offer against reason beyond blind faith.

The consequence is that the battle between Evolutionism and Creationism is unbalanced, which is a great pity. This play really needed Wilberforce to fight the good fight with much more vigour.

There is very little clarity of purpose in the writing and, as an example, the link between the three famous men and stage debutante Cressida Whyte's Sarah with her tale of lost love is almost non-existent. The only plausible explanation is that she scarily symbolises the results of evolution. Rather than an intellectual superhuman, the best that we can achieve is a pretty blonde airhead.

Inevitably, Oliver Ford Davies is impressive as Darwin, complete with Hawaiian shirt. He is an actor who is capable of making anything sound interesting, even extracts from horoscopes or novelist Pat Booth, a writer whose work is implausibly put forward as the 21st century's equivalent to the Bible.

Supporting Ford Davies, Douglas Henshall is a particularly bumptious Huxley while Nigel Planer is a rather unintelligent Bishop who lacks the moral strength that the original surely must have had. He is not helped by his overheated clothes and dottily innocent manner.

By the end, Darwin in Malibu asks more questions than it answers, in particular why all these dead people have reappeared on a California beach. It can be amusing and will bring moral and philosophical debate on a fascinating subject before a wider audience. For that, it is to be welcomed.

Steve Orme reviewed the original production at the Door, Birmingham

Reviewer: Philip Fisher