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Serious History Integrated With Energy & Wit

Serious History Integrated With Energy & Wit

Collapsing Creation - by Arthur Meek - Directed by David O'Donnell - Reviewed By Sharon Ellis
5 Nov – 28 Nov - Downstage Theatre

Peter Hambleton as Charles Darwin. Photo by Christopher Brougham

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Performance Times - Tuesday - Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday - Saturday 8pm
Matinee - Sat 21 Nov at 2pm
Duration - 110 Min plus interval

It has been Charles Darwin’s year since his 200th birthday in February and on Thursday night before the fireworks on the harbour, we saw Downstage’s biographical tribute.

Arthur Meek wrote Collapsing Creation and in his programme note he makes much of the notion of collapsing. He says he has collapsed arguments, people and events but nevertheless does not explain the title. The collapsing is to good effect. All the complicated history and plethora of worthy detractors and supporters are effectively collapsed into a manageable little group. The danger may have been that they would become caricatures but they don’t and Peter Hambleton even looks like the contemporary portraits of Charles Darwin himself.

Darwin and the supporting and detracting cast make for a good play. It is an excellent combination of serious and well-argued historical biography with credible, naturally selected, creative and integrated jokes and wit. It is a play that is the best of both genres and to my mind better in both ways than any flat white genuflection to tourism for the aged.

This play is a tidy skilful piece of work. It could have run the risk of inspiring a static production but here at Downstage the business, the exhibits, the entrances and exits contribute to lively engaging arrangements, although it is difficult to understand what Darwin and a young Alfred Thomas were up to when they crept up the aisles to deliver lines that ended up with the audience looking side to side as at a tennis match.

The set shifted itself seamlessly through redecorations of the forty year course of the day of the play and the lighting effects were so luminously lovely I don’t know why we bother ourselves with paint and paper at home.

Darwin’s first appearance as a scruff in underwear does not fit well with his forty year suit and waistcoat and didn’t signify anything worth the embarrassment of the unpleasantly revealing pink longjohns. Everybody else managed to look appropriate as he did too once he got dressed. Mrs Darwin was the perfect wife caring, protective, and self-effacing and at the same time well able to express her own doubts. Cathy Downes did her as believably strong, thinking and intelligent. Did Meek make it up or were the Darwins truly a happy couple?

The stiff brit superiority of the frustratingly fixed John Roberts played by Eddie Campbell contrasted with the subtly kiwi accents of the goodies put us all on the side of the thinking classes. Gardiner was Darwin’s foil. Wherever it was Meek found Gardiner, he turned out to be a very kiwi kind of collapsed character and Christopher Brougham did him proud. The characters were not caricatures, they were not stereotypes so it’s not a bad bit of collapsing Meek managed.

There is a special piquancy in the irony of our knowledge that the controversy rages on 200 years later, and the irony of our knowledge that in spite of his fears that Alfred Thomas has stolen his thunder it is Darwin’s name that is associated with the science. But, most of all it is a highly entertaining play and at Downstage it is performed with energy and wit.


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