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Review: The Wider Earth (Natural History Museum)

The first show to ever be produced at the Natural History Museum has its premiere

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Wider Earth
© Mark Douet

It's always an exciting occasion to get a first look at a new theatre. The Natural History Museum's Jerwood Gallery, nestled in the heart of its Darwin Centre, is opening its doors for the first time with the UK premiere of The Wider Earth, co-produced by Trish Wadley Productions and Dead Puppet Society, which touches down in London following a run over in Australia. It's a nice space (aside from some odd sightlines in the lower stalls area that mean some projections are unseeable) and feels like a neat fit for a play dabbling in the history of natural study.

Charting the early years of a 22 year-old Charles Darwin (sans the iconic beard) as he makes his first forays into evolutionary theory on the HMS Beagle, The Wider Earth is like an earnest mashup between Around the World in 80 Days and an episode of Planet Earth – the Beagle making stops across the world as Darwin examines all manner of wildlife on offer, twigging the brutal struggle for surviving occurring in rock pools, in the skies and, of course, between humanity.

There's a solid turn from Bradley Foster as the uncertain yet eager Darwin, grappling with the impact of his studies on his sense of faith and the role of God in the world beyond. Dead Puppet Society has also created a whole panoply of ornate, fascinating puppets (there are more Galapagos turtles than you can shake a stick at) that bustle across a revolving stage or soar overhead.

The show has faults – writer, director and co-designer David Morton is far more deft at the latter two of his titles than the first, and the saggy script leaves a lot of characterisation to be desired. Clunky and chock-full of exposition early on, you can tell that Morton is far more comfortable writing about ornithology than thorny conflict, and it's only later in the first act, once the Beagle is well-and-truly in the heart of its voyage, that the show begins to convince.

What brings a sub-par story to life is the exorbitant success of sound designer Tony Brumpton, lighting designer Lee Curran, music (co-composed by Lior and Tony Buchen) and the broad, intricately-crafted set of projections by Justin Harrison. Providing a cavalcade of backdrops and deep-rumbling bass beneath the Jerwood seating, the show feels enthrallingly cinematic, with the projections providing useful exposition and tracing the Beagle's incredible journey.

The Wider Earth definitely prioritises information over an exciting script, but there's a great balance of child-satisfying puppetry and piquant scientific content for their parents (especially when it comes to Darwin's geology work, which largely prompted his more radical Origin of Species theory). In any other venue it would never feel at ease, but couched in its new home in the Natural History Museum, the show feels very much on the right track.