Darwin in Malibu, Hampstead Theatre, London

On the sun-kissed deck of a Malibu beach house, Charles Darwin (Oliver Ford Davies) is knocking back banana milk shakes, tucking into a fat "fuck-a-page sandbuster" by Pat Booth and enjoying the attentions of a gorgeous blonde Californian girl (Cressida Whyte). Considering it's 145 years since he published On the Origin of Species and 122 years since his death, it can't be considered a wholly lamentable fate.

But then Darwin's peace is disturbed by the arrival of two contemporaries who take diametrically opposed positions on his work. There's his vociferous champion Thomas Huxley (Douglas Henshall), who once declared publicly that he would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop, and his sanctimonious, God-botherer adversary Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford (Nigel Planer), who thinks that they are all in purgatory and his only chance of getting to heaven lies in converting the other two to his creationist convictions.

At first, it's easy to underestimate Crispin Whittell's agile, witty play. Even in Robert Delamere's luxuriously cast and expertly acted production, the early scenes suggest that we're in for a kind of middlebrow intellectual sitcom based on the incongruity of Victorian thinkers evolving (and refusing to evolve) in La-la-land. "Who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery?" Darwin asks.

The brainy slapstick continues throughout and produces some very funny set pieces and running gags. There's the delicious sight of Darwin poring over horoscopes in a glossy mag, and his skirmish with Wilberforce over the contradictions in any concept of heaven. (How could he be allowed to indulge his passion for shooting partridges there, given that the birds would, by definition, have to be virtuous partridges who deserve a better reward than being blasted to bits by him?)

But gradually, Whittell's drama deepens and begins to use its posthumous perspective on existence more in the manner of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. If the latter employed the afterlife as an arena for meditating on the mysteries of human motivation, Darwin in Malibu (whose four characters have all been bereaved in painful circumstances) is well positioned to explore what follows from the fact that man is the only creature who lives his life conscious of his own mortality. I am sure that evolutionary psychology must have worked out how that sobering knowledge fits usefully into the Darwinian scheme, but Whittell's Darwin seems to intimate that this human development gave rise to the undying need for a faith that cannot quite be reconciled with his system.

Such reflections throw welcome shadows over the sun-baked scene. Though there were aspects of the play I didn't care for, I ended up feeling that Whittell is a dramatist who is clever enough to know that cleverness is not enough, and to act accordingly.

To 16 October (020-7722 9301)

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'