My responses to Crispin Whittell's new play are radically contradictory. I like it a great deal, but in a very sixth-form way. It has intellectual fizz, addresses both scientific and numinous profundities, and has a number of fine if often incongruous laugh lines. But it's a gaudy house of cards, and building such a house on the Californian system of geological faults is a risky thing indeed.
For the title is a plain description of the situation. It's the present day, and Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, is living... ah, but it's 120 years after his death, and he knows it... very well, is inhabiting a beach cabana on the Pacific coast along with a young modern-day woman named Sarah. Who should turn up but his colleague T.H. Huxley (d. 1895), followed by their Creationist opponent Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford (d. 1873), determined to argue out "the ape question" once and for all, in (the Bishop's) hope that they will finally be allowed into Heaven rather than having to hang around where they are, drinking banana shakes and reading bonkbuster novels.
It's a hoot and a half. There they are, Darwin in shorts and Hawaiian shirt, the Bishop in sleeveless cardigan and socks with his sandals. But it's mostly Huxley who bashes the Bishop in debate, letting fly at the story of the Ark (about which, incidentally, Whittell's Wilberforce makes a major scriptural error) and so on. Huxley's is the role written with greatest effervescence, i.e. he's the one who gets to swear in a 21st-century way, and Douglas Henshall gets right behind it (although some might mistake his portrayal of the hard-of-hearing Huxley as over-selling his lines). Oliver Ford Davies has gravitas as Darwin, despite the togs, and Nigel Planer's Wilberforce is that particular kind of nice-but-dim English buffoon.
Wonderfully entertaining, as I say, but you can't half hear the crash of gears between metaphysics, comedy and poetry. You desperately hope, too, that Whittell is being deliberately clumsy for comic effect with lines such as "So what's been the highpoint of the last hundred years for you?" Because if you started looking at it in a mature light, you'd find it hard to be anything like as charitable. I realised that it reminded me of that period in the mid-1970s when Doctor Who was script-edited by Douglas Adams: the episodes bubbled with cleverness, but in the end they were no more than immensely enjoyable tosh.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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