New Diorama Theatre, London – until 23 March 2019
Reviewers: Lawrence Osborne & Laura Kressly
Have you ever heard of Gideon Mantell? We hadn’t. But this multi-role telling of the life of the Sussex-based Victorian doctor and amateur geologist, whose discovery of the Iguanodon instigated relentless conflicts with the Church of England, is a compelling, musical story of a man willing to lose everything in the fight for scientific progress.
Lawrence: As a sometimes-visitor to the theatre, I find this show to be an interesting rollercoaster of time-hopping with an unusual use of live, classical music to enhance the story’s mood. A prominent piano, on a platform at the back of the stage, is played throughout to great effect. Suspense, tenderness and everything in between is effectively captured. As a proud Sussex man, it is great to learn about a local historical figure whose work and vision helped form the basis of modern understanding of our planet’s history and evolution, before Darwin published The Origin of Species.
Laura: It’s now quite laughable, but the consideration of religious texts as historical fact, and scholars’ attempts to fit the square peg of natural history and evolution into the round hole of religious thought at the time, elicits much anger. It’s also an effective, dramatic obstacle for Mantell to fight against, and his losing battle is utterly devastating.
Lawrence: This fascinating story is delivered by great performances (Janet Etuk, Hamish MacDougall, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb) that utilise abstract, shapeless objects to represent the fossils and body parts that dictate Gideon’s daily routines. The acting helps us suspend disbelief and, in the moment, visualise exactly what the object is. These items also facilitate the most comfortable-looking death scene I’ve seen.
Laura: Heightened performances and the music add stylistic variety and prevent the story from becoming too weighty, but these are finely balanced with the gravity of Gideon’s series of battles with faith, aristocrats and his family. It also emphasises the absurdity of the forces Gideon is up against.
This is a great fast-paced play that shines a light on some little-known history and provokes appreciation of the trouble scientists faced then, and continue to face in this age of anti-expertise. They were martyrs for progress and development, and we leave remembering that the battle is far from over.