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Darwin in Malibu
by Lizzie Loveridge

Who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery!
--- Darwin
Crispin Whittell's play Darwin in Malibu was nominated for awards last year when it opened in Birmingham. It has now come to London's Hampstead Theatre with an excellent cast. Whittell places Charles Darwin, aged 73, in a beach house in Malibu, California in the present day. The play is an opportunity to revisit the great nineteenth century debate between science and the Church which was stimulated by the publication of Darwin's book expounding evolution, The Origin of the Species. What Whittell has written is actually a charming comedy full of an amusing juxtaposition of ideas.

Charles Darwin (Oliver Ford Davies) is an old man but has adapted, as theories of evolution might allow us to expect, to life as a kind of twenty first century beach bum. His companion is a young, very attractive blonde girl, Sarah (Cressida Whyte) who is young enough to be his granddaughter. For stimulation Darwin reads chick lit bonk-a-chapter sandbusters and consults his horoscope, seemingly without any sense of shame. Darwin is joined by Thomas Huxley (Douglas Henshall) who was his great defender in the mid 1800s against the forces of the Church and State. These were represented by Samuel Wilberforce (Nigel Planer), the Bishop of Oxford, who has also come to Malibu from Alabama where he now resides, teaching at a Bible College with like minded theologians. As all three are dead the question poses why they are all in the same place. The Bishop of Oxford expected that he might go to Heaven but that Huxley and Darwin would be in the other place. The bishop decides that the conversion of Darwin stands between him and a place in Heaven and so is visiting Malibu on a mission.

The first task is for Darwin and Huxley to discuss scientific discovery since the 1880s, including Crick and Watson's discovery of DNA. There is some serious scientific discussion but what I shall remember most about this play are the wonderfully amusing allusions to the low culture of the modern day. Neither Darwin nor Huxley react as one would expect the Victorians to behave, neither is stuffy, both are open to new ideas whether they come in the form of newspaper articles or in softly pornographic novellas. Both are able to engage with modern culture and that is Crispin Whittell's best joke.

The essential characters remain honest to the originals. Douglas Henshall is excellent as Huxley, hot headed, honest and direct, with all the youthful unwillingness to compromise and a centred belief in his own logic. He was of course the man who coined agnosticism releasing us all from having to be either a believer or a non believer. Planer as his protagonist, Wilberforce, is a more sober character, earnest, sincere, anxious to do the right thing. Oliver Ford Davies' Darwin is slightly detached, above the debate, obviously rather wise but quite happy to spend his hours wearing a garish beach scene shirt and a pair of shorts reading anything and everything to hand. I'm not too sure about the function of the girl except to expose everyone else to modern, dare I call it literature? She also receives some of Darwin's wisdom in the area of relationships. Sarah asks "Why do we do it Sweet? What makes us chase the things that hurt us?"

I really enjoyed Darwin's questioning Wilberforce about whether he might be able to shoot partridges in Heaven. Wilberforce said he might but then Darwin asked whether partridges have a right to expect to go to Heaven too and what kind of Heaven is it if they are his victims? The neat solution is of course a reverse process whereby our Heaven is the bad partridges' Hell! Similarly Huxley cross-examines Wilberforce about the exact number of species possibly housed on Noah's Ark with some inventive conclusions.

The set is a pretty, pale woodenhouse, with a veranda, its stairs doubling as bookcases, hung with wind chimes, overlooking the ocean. The men wear modern dress -- the bishop in dog collar, sandals and socks, Huxley in an elegant linen suit and Darwin in a taste which reflects his predilection for cheap novels. Robert Delamere directs what might have been rather a wordy play with interest.

There was a point when, although I was amused, I failed to see exactly where Darwin in Malibu could go. How to bring some of these monumental ideas to a satisfying conclusion. Darwin postulates that the knowledge that Adam gained, or more conventionally, the innocence that he lost in the Garden of Eden, was a knowledge of his own death. Darwin in Malibu is a light hearted evening in the theatre but with some mental agility for those who appreciate ideas.

Darwin in Malibu
Written by Crispin Whittell
Directed by Robert Delamere

Starring: Oliver Ford Davies, Douglas Henshall
With: Nigel Planer, Cressida Whyte
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Jon Driscoll
Sound: Nick Manning
Running time: One hours fifty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 16th October 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd September 2004 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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