Origin of the Species

Bryony Lavery
Primavera Productions
Arcola Theatre

Publicity photo

A key theme in Origin of the Species is acquisition: of knowledge, language, bodies and cultures, that sits well with the current trend for all things Darwin and the creationism debate, from Kevin Spacey's Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, to the recently opened Darwin Centre.

Writer Bryony Lavery's play, directed by Tom Littler for Primavera, is rooted in the major archeological finds at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the early 1930's that supported the theory that all human life began in Africa.

The real Molly took part in these events: we meet character 'Molly' (Marjorie Yates) in her warm Yorkshire sitting room (a set exquisitely designed by Victoria Johnstone) as she eats toast, drinks tea and prepares to welcome in a new year whilst musing on her own past life as an archeologist and how life began in general.

A skull on the mantelpiece introduces Victoria, a 'find' made corporeal in the beautiful shape of Clare-Hope Ashitey. What follows is an imagined relationship that fascinatingly merges fact and fiction, underpinned by the thorny subjects of evolution, science and progress - here, from a woman's viewpoint.

Part of the play's charm is its ambiguity and inscrutability. It could be that Victoria represents the evolved human from Homo habilis (via Molly's discovery), to Homo erectus (as Victoria springs to life from a stage-floor fissure), to Homo sapiens, in her gaining of extended vocabulary and knowledge about the world. But it is this very acquisition that, in part two, causes tension between teacher and pupil.

It is a joy to see two actresses sparking off each other in perfect unity: Ms Yates, a seasoned performer from stage, screen, and television, and Ms Ashitey, previously seen in the film Children of Men, here showing immense promise in her professional stage debut.

Despite the minor intrusion of (for me) an unnecessary interval the play has great charm, is thought provoking and ends with a poignant edge. Has the girl been a figment of a lonely older woman's imagination - the summation and realization of her past career - or a real presence?

My friend and I could not agree but spent the hour's journey home in debate and discussion - surely a good sign for a comedy that evokes a range of unending questions on who we are and where we came from that is likely to continue for as long as humankind is allowed subjectivity.

Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler