Darwin in Malibu, Hampstead Theatre, London <br></br> The Postman Always Rings Twice, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds <br></br> The Anniversary, Playhouse, Liverpool

Darwin, the bishop and the origin of speeches
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Charles Darwin is, of course, dead. Yet it appears the great evolutionist has not bitten the dust as categorically as the dodo. According to Darwin In Malibu, he's alive and well or, at least, mysteriously resurrected in present-day California. In Crispin Whittell's comedy of ideas we discover the Victorian naturalist (bushy-bearded Oliver Ford Davies) outside a beach hut. He's sporting wraparound shades and thumbing through a pulp novel by Pat Booth.

A teenage girl is amiably hanging out with Darwin, pining for her ex-boyfriend. Then the late biologist Thomas Huxley (Douglas Henshall) and erstwhile bishop Samuel Wilberforce (Nigel Planer) turn up to continue the argument they started at the British Association meeting of 1860, where Huxley declared he'd rather have an ape than a blinkered cleric for an ancestor.

Planer's pedantic Wilberforce admits he is unsettled to find himself in this curious earthly purgatory/paradise but his mission is to bring the author of The Origin of Species round to Creationism and then accompany him to heaven. Henshall's Huxley, as a purely logical scientist, is exasperated by the bishop's stubborn faith and ludicrous arguments about Noah's ark having berths for dinosaurs. Ford Davies's mild-mannered Darwin is in the middle, declining to wholly dismiss the Good Book (not the Pat Booth), yet ready to have a wry pop at the church. In a more serious moment, he suggests he may have pursued his theories because his daughter's death terminated his trust in God. Each character has lost a loved one and struggled, with of without the concept of an afterlife.

Director Robert Delamere's production does the piece proud. His star trio are all charmingly funny, even if Henshall needs to tone down the hollering, and the playwright's forte is being warmly entertaining. My complaint is that Terry Johnson's comparable comedies about Einstein and Freud are far more tightly structured. Whittell's play wouldn't last if it came down to the survival of the fittest, with its slow start and lapse into pseudo-poetic, neo-Romantic tosh. Intellectually, in fact, this play proves to be lamentably vague and dumbed down. Whatever happened to the evolution of ideas?

Unnervingly, there's going to be another dead man on the road to Malibu in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but literary adaptations don't always follow a straight evolutionary path. James M Cain's crime novel was turned into a celebrated film noir in 1946, with Lana Turner's Cora as an iconic blonde femme fatale, enthralling the rover, Frank, as soon as he rolls up at her husband's highway diner. Those stuck on the classic movie (especially if they haven't seen the 1981 remake), may be startled by Lucy Bailey's staging because Andrew Rattenbury's new version goes back to the book for expunged scenes of brutality - including a rape.

Visually, the set retains a "wide-screen" aspect but is stunning in a quite different way. The harsh struggles of the Depression are rammed home as Patrick O'Kane's scavenging Frank is hurled off a farm truck. Then he sees the diner: a long, low hut, furnished with spartan tables and broken blinds. It's as if we are seeing through depressed eyes. Everything is brown and grey, except for the golden, flashing diner sign on the roof.

Charlotte Emmerson's appearance is also refreshingly different: scruffy yet subtly attractive. In many ways, this is a more feminist vision of Cora than Turner's, for Emmerson makes her desperately miserable, and Joseph Alessi plays her spouse as a bullying patriarch with a jovial front. He, in turn, is the subject of xenophobic scorn, and the corruption of the US justice system comes across pungently too. However, Rattenbury's adaptation includes some narrative jolts, Django Bates's jazz score is slightly intrusive, and staging car crashes is faintly ridiculous.

In Liverpool this week, the Everyman is celebrating its 40th birthday in the company of its sister theatre, the Playhouse, both of which have been enjoying a new lease of life under artistic director Gemma Bodinetz. Bill MacIlwraith's black comedy, The Anniversary, loosely fits the bill to mark four decades, written in 1965 and set at a ruby wedding bash. Unfortunately, the monstrously possessive mum around whom everything revolves seems little more than a dated mother-in-law joke, stretched thin. Sheila Hancock's starring performance as Mum is spry and Rosie Cavaliero, as the daughter-in-law, fights back with great brio, but Denis Lawson's direction is relentlessly shallow. Give this one a miss.

'Darwin in Malibu': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 16 October; 'The Postman Always Rings Twice': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to 16 October; 'The Anniversary': Playhouse, Liverpool (0151 709 4776), to 2 October

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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