One hundred and twenty-five years after his death, Charles Darwin is hanging out in a beach house overlooking the Pacific with a girl young enough to be his daughter. His peace is rudely disturbed when his old friend Thomas Huxley washes up on the beach closely followed by the Bishop of Oxford. And Darwin finds himself entangled in an enthralling and thought-provoking comedy about God, science, and plastic surgery.
CAST INCLUDED: Douglas Henshall, Nigel Planer, Oliver Ford Davies.
‘Since it moved into its swanky new premises, the Hampstead Theatre has endured a torrid time, with far too light a hand on the quality control switch.
With the arrival of Crispin Whittell's Darwin in Malibu, however, it has a delightful hit on its hands, a play that is at once funny, thought-provoking and unexpectedly touching.
The action is set in a bleached-wood beach-house in Malibu, so beautifully designed by Simon Higlett that you feel like taking the next plane to California, buying something similar yourself and staying there for the rest of your life.
It is the home of a white-haired old beardie in a Hawaiian shirt and shades, attended by a beautiful Californian beach-babe in denim shorts who proves a dab hand at rolling spliffs and making the perfect milkshake. The man is Charles Darwin, somehow living the life of Riley almost 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species.
But his idyllic, one might almost say heavenly, existence is soon interrupted. First Thomas Huxley arrives, who became known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his vigorous defence of his mentor's theories of natural selection and evolution.
Then Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, pitches up, one of the most determined opponents of the new science which so radically undermined the Christian faith during the Victorian age.
Reunited, though none of them seem quite sure how, why, or even where, the three men enter into their old arguments with vigour. Highly entertaining they prove, too, as if an Oxbridge senior common room of the 19th century had somehow become the subject of an unusually intelligent 21st-century sitcom.
But in Robert Delamere's assured, fleet-footed production, the show proves affecting as well as funny. All three men lost loved ones cruelly early, and as they rake over the arguments of years ago, the shadows darken.
In the role of Wilberforce, Nigel Planer gives a magnificent performance as the kind of gauche, muscular Christian you still sometimes encounter today, absurd in his unshakeable convictions perhaps, but somehow also lovable and oddly admirable.
Douglas Henshall delivers hilariously indignant monologues about the absurdities of faith with the panache of a great stand-up comedian, but finds a moving edge of melancholy too, while Oliver Ford Davies, whose Darwin, with his beard and long white hair, looks just like a child's view of God, manages to be at once wise, funny and troubled.
It doesn't all work, and in particular the character of Darwin's Californian beach-girl seems almost insultingly under-developed, until she springs a surprise at the end and drifts off into several yards of eminently cuttable poetic verbiage.
But Darwin in Malibu haunts the memory as a work that tackles science, loss, and what Arnold described as the "melancholy long withdrawing roar" of Christian faith with a rare combination of wit and warmth. If Darwin was right about the survival of the fittest, Whittell's play will undoubtedly enjoy a productive life beyond Hampstead.’