Tuesday, 30 October 2018

REVIEW: The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum

The producers have set out to create a worthy educational play aimed at the pre-teens market and staged in the Natural History Museum Jerwood Gallery to add to its authenticity and reinforce its serious intent. What they have delivered is a charming beautifully staged retelling of the young Charles Darwin five year voyage of discovery on board the HMS Beagle in 1831 in which he finds his purpose in life . It is full of clever creative ideas to bring to life the places and creatures he meets as the ship circumnavigates the world.

The projections on the screen above the stage are delightful, building up like sketches in his notebook and coloured in as if watercolours to set the scenes but also artful incorporating animation that brings the scene to life. We see the waves of the seas they cross and the volcanoes of the lands they visit. In a five year voyage they visit a lot of places and if anything we could see more of some of the places and his discoveries.

The creatures we meet are puppets operated by the actors to create their movement. These wooden framed creatures without skin nevertheless come to life especially the amazing armadillo, friendly iguana and giant turtle. We also see butterflies and birds swooping across the set and schools of fish and whales in the sea. More than that the narrative starts to sketch out his thoughts on an evolutionary process and the survival of the fittest in a way that we can understand and see.

The ship itself is half of a large revolve that dominates the purpose built stage and doubles as his Cambridge college and his father's home. The other side is the rocks he clambers across in the exploration. It inevitably means some compromises in the setting and a little imagination from the audience to visualise the location and the rapid scenes changes means the revolve is almost constantly spinning slowly round. 

Charles Darwin at twenty two is played with an easy charm by Bradley Foster
and he conveys the man's transition from nerdy Cambridge undergraduate obsessed with Beetles to an admired fresh thinker on the verge of a brilliant new theory. He also explores his relationship with his rather unbending father (Ian Houghton), his fiancĂ© Emma Wedgwood, an anti slavery campaigner (Melissa Vaughan) and the Beagle's Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) so that on his return home we are touched by the way the relationships have changed. 

Along the way the play touches inevitably on the clash between Christian beliefs of the Creation versus Darwin's evolving theories and on the discovery of a photographic process by John Herschel in South Africa reinforcing the story tellers educational intent. 

David Horton (who wrote and directed), Nick Paine and Aaron Barton have created a wonderfully imaginative story telling play that should inspire young people to care about the world and each other and dream of making a difference.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Row k | Price of Ticket: £19.50
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