Charles Darwin’s genius is well-known, but his anguish less so. Both were brilliantly brought out by Andrew Harrison in two performances of this one-man show, which moved, enlightened and entertained near sell-out crowds with its confident evocation of the life and times of one of the 19th century’s most controversial and influential figures. Drawing out the humour of Darwin’s life alongside its brilliance and pain, Harrison had his audiences laughing and close to tears by turns. Incorporating abundant quotations from contemporary letters, records and diaries, the play seeks to uncover the man behind the mythology, undermining simplistic accounts of the development of the theory of evolution. The Origin of Species shook science to its foundations, but left no theological consensus in its wake, least of all in the mind of its author.

Many clergymen welcomed the new theory; even its staunchest defenders had doubts. And throughout the controversy, tormented by poor health and the death of his daughter, Darwin wrestled with his own weak, wavering and ultimately extinguished faith, looking with continual admiration towards his devoted wife, Emma, who remained a committed believer and faithful companion to the end. Such were the surprising origins of one of science’s most ideologically contested theories, and all who saw the play can be grateful for having had them so expertly, amusingly and engagingly brought to life. Darwin’s evolutionary “Tree of Life” has always had a wider array of perspectives sheltering in its branches than many of us may realise.

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