Origin of the Species @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Marjorie Yates, Clare-Hope Ashitey

directed by
Tom Littler
This year marks both the bicentenary of Darwins birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species – and, as a resuly, suddenly his life, his work and his legacy are everywhere.

Hes being defended by a white-haired Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic in their revival of Inherit the Wind and celebrated by Richard Dawkins in print in his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. The Rambert Company is even staging a dancers response to Darwin in their new piece The Comedy of Change.

Apt timing then for Primavera to revive Bryony Laverys 1984 play, The Origin of the Species, at the Arcola.
In this deceptively slight and wryly amusing two-hander, Molly goes on an archaeological dig with the famous Leakeys to Tanzanias Olduvai Gorge, a layer cake of life on this planet. Here she comes across the remains of a four million year old ancestor and, with a wave of her brush and a brush of her lips, brings her to life. This done, she takes the girl home with her, to Yorkshire, and names her Victoria.

Molly clothes Victoria in a woolly cardigan (this is Yorkshire after all) and starts to teach her to speak, beginning simply with the words for milk and apple, man and woman, before moving on to more abstract ideas, death and time, and the richness of the imagination. As Victoria learns more, of life and language, she asks Molly increasingly complex questions about the world.

Lavery seems quite happy never to confirm whether this strange relationship is the product of a lonely womans mind or a genuine moment of magic. Victoria is the embodiment of the skull on Mollys mantel piece, simultaneously a link with the earliest living humans and a reminder that we will all one day be dust.

A rather bleak thread runs beneath all Molly’s little quips about Harveys Bristol Cream, that we the human race – are tiny specks, a blip in time. The play is as much about the role of women in the world as it is about the spread of a species and it is shot though with a sense of weariness about the numerous restrictions placed by men on women over the millennia, underlined by Mollys frustrated and repeated use of him and he, said with a resigned shake of her head. This feminist message is however a little too strongly put in places, especially when Molly presents Victoria with a little doll with its feet bound and bloodied and its waist cinched by a corset. The message is all too clear without Lavery needing to be so literal.

The two performers, Shamelesss Marjorie Yates, as Molly, and Clare-Hope Ashitey, making her stage debut as Victoria, work well together. Theres a real sense of warmth between them and Ashitey is funny and likeable in a role that requires her to prowl around the stage, wide-eyed with fear and wonder, and sip milk from a saucer. Director Tom Littler creates a decent balance between the plays poignancy and its silliness; hes aided by Victoria Johnstones attractive set which depicts a dinky Yorkshire living room, complete with faux-coal fire, sitting amidst African sands.

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