The premise of Bryony Lavery's Origin of the Species, revived to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's seminal work, is bizarre in the utmost.
An ageing Yorkshire academic recounts how, on a dig in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika, she once uncovered a four million year-old woman. But instead of a collection of bones, she found a comely and vivacious young thing whom she smuggled back to her Yorkshire cottage, named 'Victoria', and taught to sing “On Ilkley Moor bar t'at”.
Aided by her protege's miraculous aptitude with language, the academic, Molly (played with suitable fireside manner by Marjorie Yates), is able to ascertain that women discovered fire, that our distant African ancestors were occasional cannibals and that, despite being “less of a guzzle guts and less of a chatterbox”, 'Victoria' and herself have a remarkable amount in common – not least a mutual distrust of men.
It's very difficult to get a handle on what exactly Lavery is getting at, primarily because the framework in which she's saying it is so difficult to accept - not least the fact that for the majority of the play Yates is supposedly playing a much younger version of herself (prompting me to question why the tale is told in flashback?).
Victoria Johnstone's dainty living-room set looks suitable for Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, but is mismatched with the fantastical nature of Lavery's narrative. That said, there are isolated moments of insight between the longueurs, and a well-balanced performance from Clare-Hope Ashitey in a difficult role.