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Gilbert Is Dead

Robin French
Shining Man Productions
Hoxton Hall
(2009)

Publicity photo

The death of his wife was a bitter blow to taxidermist Lucius Trickett and undermined his faith in God and divine creation, already challenged by the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. He closed his museum of stuffed animals and became something of a recluse. However he now believes that he has proof that Darwin is wrong.

Could this new play, presented 150 years after the publication of that landmark book and on the bicentenary of Darwin's birth, be a treatise supporting creationism? It begins to look like it, though there are plenty of flaws in the argument that Trickett offers. His evidence is the discovery of the Ghost Loris, a tiny primate whose joints give it constant pain and, countering Darwin's idea of every organism struggling for survival, these creatures are said to deliberately kill themselves by dropping from the trees because they can't bear living.

Trickett has a stuffed Ghost Loris that he believes was sent from the forests of the Black Islands by explorer Gilbert Shirley, who had been ordered to look for it by no less than Queen Victoria herself. Now Trickett waits for Shirley's return; all must stay secret until then when the discovery can be announced to the world and his museum reopened. Meanwhile creditors want paying. They send their emissary, family friend Bartholomew Meriwether, to demanding the museum be opened and that's where we join the story.

It's a very eclectic piece: part mystery - what has happened to explorer Shirley, who steals the Ghost Loris? In part a study of family relations (Trickett keeps his wheel-chair-bound sixteen-year-old daughter closeted in the museum), part comedy and part tragic story: this is all reflected in director Robert Wolstenholme's production.

Most of the play takes place in the museum, and designer Christopher Hone has crowded the upper levels of Hoxton's multi-level stage with stuffed animals: bear, penguin, cobra, ostrich, stork, baby crocodile; heads of lion, giraffe, hippo, monkey, elk; cases of giant moths and a huge swordfish overhead. The scenes there are interspersed with episodes from Shirley's expedition which are presented in a different style as front cloth scenes on the forestage. Shirley, Queen Victoria, a footman and the indigenous peoples of the Black Islands are doubled by the actors from the London scenes in a music hall style, with puppets for the birds and beasts that they encounter. While the museum scenes are full of 1866 Victorian respectability and held-back emotion that tips into melodrama the Sidney scenes are tongue-in-cheek but not yet, I felt, quite right. The settings and animals are beautifully painted but the puppetry awkward. There are elements of the plot that a certain amateurishness could be said to reflect but the same finesse in performance as in design would make them more funny -- perhaps that will come as the play runs in.

William Chubb as Meriwether surmounts the formidable challenge of opening the play by reading a long inventory of the museum's exhibits and makes the character show a touching concern for Lucille, Trickett's daughter, intensely played by Kate Burdette, who doubles a tartly spoken young Victoria. Lucius Trickett is Ronan Vibert, who dons top hat and false moustache to double Sidney, giving both a blinkered self-righteousness that matches the surface deadly seriousness of this comedy and Suzan Sylvester completes the cast as maid Maisy.

The cast are adept quick-change artistes, appearing in their other character without a hint of any flurry, any hiatus hidden by carefully chosen music, though I would question a final transformation from Sidney back to Trickett in full view of the audience which seems to conflict with the plot, though it does emphasises a complicity with the audience. Whatever dark secrets of the Victorian conscience may be buried here this is an enjoyable romp that isn't to be taken too seriously.

At Hoxton Hall until 29th November 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton