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Review: Secret Life of Humans, at New Diorama Theatre

Stimulating play that draws on seminal studies of social conditioning – and follows a one-night stand with a difference – is brilliantly staged with a splendid cast

19 April, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Beautiful and absorbing: Secret Life of Humans. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

IS sitting in the dark watching actors in a play so different from early humans in flickering torchlight looking at painted bison in a cave? It is a link a lecturer called Ava makes in the opening of this play devised by the company and written by David Byrne as she points out how conditioned we are by early human experience.

In 1973, Jacob Bronowski’s television series The Ascent of Man charted human achievement. In 2014, Yuval Harari published Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind suggesting that homo sapiens gained dominance by exterminating other humans and that the development of agricultural made life worse not better.

This stimulating play draws on both those sources in an investigation that begins when Ava (Stella Taylor) makes a blind date on Tinder with a young man who is Bronowski’s grandson (Andrew Strafford-Baker). It’s just a one-night-stand, but when she discovers his grandfather left a locked room no one was allowed to enter she insists they investigate its secrets. Secrets about what mathematician Bronowski was doing during the Second World War.

There is dramatic licence here for it was actually Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine who went through his papers and published her discoveries, but the result is like a detective story as they discover that Bronowski (Richard Delaney) and his wartime colleague George (Andy McLeod) were doing at the same time questioning so-called human progress. It is brilliantly staged with a splendid cast and some stunning visual effects. Beautiful and absorbing, it achieves more in 80 minutes than many plays twice as long. Catch it before it transfers to New York.

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