Review: The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum

Natural history comes alive in spectacular fashion in The Wider Earth – and appropriately enough, it does so in a custom-built theatre at London’s Natural History Museum. The show tells the story of 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who joins a voyage to the Americas on the HMS Beagle and returns five years later with a new theory that will change the way we see the world forever.

The production, written and directed by Dead Puppet Society’s David Morton, is jaw-droppingly beautiful in almost every way imaginable. A huge video screen projects vibrant animations depicting Darwin’s travels, while the majority of the action takes place on a huge revolve stage that doubles as both the ship’s deck and the rugged landscapes explored by the young naturalist. A gorgeous score from co-composers Lior and Tony Buchen transports us to new lands as a host of stunning puppets bring creatures great and small to life before our eyes.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

As a spectacle, the show is undeniably a hit, but this is certainly not a case of style over substance; the play itself, performed by a talented cast of seven, is a fascinating insight into the life of a man most of us imagine only as middle-aged and beardy. Charles Darwin, played by Bradley Foster, is young, idealistic and full of curiosity about the natural world. Told by his father (Ian Houghton) that he can’t go on the voyage, he sulks and complains until his friend – and future wife – Emma Wedgwood (Melissa Vaughan) takes pity on him and asks her father to intervene on his behalf. These early scenes are clearly important to establish Darwin’s character, but do mean that the story takes a little while to really get going; fortunately, our patience is more than rewarded by what follows.

An enthusiastic Darwin initially views the Beagle’s voyage as little more than an adventure, and wants only to get to Tenerife, an island he’s heard about from his friend and professor Reverend Henslow (Andrew Bridgmont). But as his horizons expand so too does his mind (and his journal) – leading him to conclusions that go against everything he’s been taught to believe: that God created all living things exactly as they are, and always will be.

Not surprisingly, Darwin’s discoveries lead him into dangerous territory with the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who believes robustly in a preordained, God-given hierarchy of living things, with (some) humans at the top. Jack Parry-Jones captures to perfection FitzRoy’s volatile temper – particularly when challenged by Darwin on his views regarding slavery – and the vulnerability of a man whose faith and sanity are being shaken to their core, not only by his friend’s theories, but also by his own failure to civilise the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

For all its brilliance, the show is not without a couple of issues. There are moments, particularly when the stage is revolving, when it becomes difficult to hear the actors over the music. In addition, audience members at ground level frequently have our view of the video projections obscured by the towering set, and occasionally have to jostle to see the land-based puppets over the heads of those in front. These frustrations, however, are surprisingly easy to dismiss in the face of such overwhelming visual wonders.

As a world-renowned centre of scientific research, the Natural History Museum could not be a better place for this remarkable story to be told. Combining entertainment with education, The Wider Earth takes us on a magical journey of discovery and adventure – who knew learning about science could be so much fun?

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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