With the debate between the Darwinists and creationists raging once more in the US (only last month there were reports that the state of Kansas had removed the teaching of evolution from the school curriculum) the '50s courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind seems to have regained a fresh relevance.
Not that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee's tale is merely about the conflict between the bible-thumping fundamentalists and the scientists. No, Inherit the Wind is about the need to defend certain freedoms in the face of bigotry, in much the same way as that other McCarthy-era play, The Crucible. As one of the central characters informs us, 'what is on trial here is Man's right to think'.
Based on real-life events, Inherit the Wind is set in a small American town, Hillsborough, 'the buckle on the Bible Belt'. Here, schoolteacher Bert Cates has been jailed for telling his ten year-old pupils that they are descended from primeval swamp bugs, by way of a bunch of monkeys. Dubbed an 'Evil-utionist', Cates is subjected to a show trial, with one of America's top lawyers, Henry Drummond, arguing for his defence, and a fundamentalist ex-politician, Matthew Brady, leading the prosecution. Like some forerunner of the OJ trial, the whole business turns into a media circus, with a live radio link-up and a pack of salivating journos (led by the ebullient EK Hornbeck) on hand to witness its unfolding.
Under Timothy Childs' direction, apple pie-homely stereotypes fill Nigel Hook's set, and occasionally spill out into the audience: cutesy kids, hot dog salesmen, l'il ol' ladies in straw hats and hordes of check-jacketed newspapermen, all conjuring up a live version of a Norman Rockwell painting.
As the antagonists, Brady and Drummond, George Sewell and Larry Lamb respectively are solid enough, though I would have liked to have seen more sparks fly between the pair. Phoebe Wells Cooper brings tenderness to the part of Rachel, a young lady torn between her preacher father and her beleaguered schoolteacher sweetheart. As the latter, Simon Fielding provides a disappointingly two-dimensional performance, lacking in any real emotional depth. At least John Warnaby is on good form as the cynical Hornbeck, and Craig Scarborough's Elijah is strong-voiced enough to belt out a tuneful gospel.
Overall though, this production of Inherit the Wind feels slightly over-ambitious. The cast of 25 seemed uncomfortable with the limitations imposed by the tiny stage - almost as if they were enduring it until, like that other King's Head success, A Saint She Ain't, they could end up in a decent-sized West End playhouse.