Review: Secret Life of Humans – Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Tuesday August 8 2017

Two Stars

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man was a landmark television series of the 1970s, which explored the development of human society through our relationship to science. The accompanying book rivalled Delia Smith’s How to Cheat at Cooking for its ubiquity on the shelves of British households.

This new devised piece from New Diorama Theatre, created in collaboration with Greenwich Theatre and the Pleasance, weaves together elements of the famous scientist and polymath’s life and work with a more recent popular account of the evolution and development of humanity, Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. Frustratingly, the company’s attempt to wed a crash course in human history to a contemporary story, in which Bronowski’s grandson uncovers inconvenient truths about his celebrated antecedent’s work during the Second World War, proves unconvincing.

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Pic: David Monteith-Hodge

From the outset, there is a sense that David Byrne, the writer, and Kate Stanley, Byrne’s co-director, have spread their considerable research too thinly across this hour-long piece. The content touches upon some fascinating areas, including notions of moral equivalence in war and humanity’s relentless appetite for violent conflict, which flies in the face of our increased cooperation and interdependence. Yet, Byrne’s script and the production never provide persuasive reasons why this material should be put onstage.

 

Too much of the text feels expositional, as though lifted unfettered from sources, and lacking in a strong central argument with which to engage the audience. Both the present-time narrative, performed by the likeable Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Blue Taylor, and the wartime scenes, are too thin to give the piece much-needed dramatic momentum.

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Pic: David Monteith-Hodge

The most compelling element is the brief footage of a celebrated interview Bronowski gave to Michael Parkinson shortly before his death and a cameo appearance from Bertrand Russell, while the drama itself never fully grapples with its hefty subject’s complexity.

 

Box office: 0131 556 6550, to August 28

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