In some ways, Robin French’s new play about an insane Victorian taxidermist who wishes to disprove Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution is one of the most interesting plays on the fringe; in others, it’s simply the most infuriating.
Let me explain: good subject, ingenious ideas, sloppy writing, bad direction and a startling design in one of the most magical rediscovered venues in London, a perfect galleried music hall in a buzzing neighbourhood, the Greenwich Village of East London.
But the unravelling is oh-so cumbersome: Ronan Vibert’s spiritually constipated, God-fearing taxidermist, Lucius Trickett, lives in his abandoned museum with a wheelchair-bound daughter Lucille (Kate Burdette) surrounded by an astonishing stage-full of beasts, birds and amphibians, tediously inventoried at the start of the play.
As William Chubb’s solicitous doctor Meriwether itemises the contents (why?) and Vibert sits silently, you wonder if Robert Wolstenholme’s production for the shiningman company is meant to be funnier. You wonder that all evening, as opportunities for rough house raucousness are constantly ditched or muffled. The show needs a kick up the posterior.
Vibert doubles as his ant-Darwinian salvation, the explorer Gilbert Shirley, in a handlebar moustache (worn round his ears), while Burdette does a turn as Queen Victoria in Osborne dispatching the adventurer in search of the ghost loris in the Antipodes; this tiny animal apparently defies Darwin’s theories by losing interest in life and lust and falling dead out of trees.
Chubb and Susan Sylvester as the curator’s housemaid also turn up as savages in the jungle, along with a lot of nicely made puppets. Turns out the ghost loris was a ruse after all, and the sub-plot a dream.
The nuttiness of all this doesn’t find the right pitch in the staging, which is excessively slow and dull. There’s even one passage where we have to watch Sylvester drape the set in white sheets, leave the stage and return again after a costume change. You could have nipped out for a pizza while she did so.
And the ending of the play is particularly excruciating, one of the characters taking so long to die that I had to restrain myself from leaping up onto the stage to lend a helping hand. Nice theatre, though, and good on the indulgent sponsors. The front cloths are lovely. Why not do a pantomime?