Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: 'Dinomania' at the New Diorama, 27th February 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars 

There is no way in hell I'm going to miss a show called Dinomania. Perhaps understandably, there are few plays about dinosaurs on the London fringe, with cash-strapped theatre companies reluctant to blow their budget on rubber Velociraptor costumes. More's the pity, but as Dinomania proves, there is still room in theatre for palaeontology nerds...

I've been a big admirer of Kandinsky ever since their excellent Still Ill back in 2016 and their talents were only confirmed in last year's Trap Street. Those shows covered psychosomatic illness and post-war housing. Now, as if actively resisting being pigeon-holed, they've created a seriously engaging play about Victorian science and the birth of palaeontology.

I imagine that for most people the names Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier don't mean a huge amount, but they're indelibly burned into my brain thanks to 5-year-old me spending hours poring over various Usborne and Kingfisher books about dinosaurs. These books generally had a section on the discovery and classification of dinosaurs, generally taking time to explain how country doctor Gideon Mantell unearthed one of the first dinosaurs while out walking in the English countryside.

You can imagine what learning something like that does to a five-year-old's imagination. Dinosaurs are not only real and incredibly cool but they are literally hidden under the ground in this country. What on earth is stopping me from going out into the woods and finding the most awesome dinosaur the world has ever seen? All of which led me to me begging for a hammer and chisel for my sixth birthday - which in retrospect must have made for a pretty cheap present.

Anyway, all that's to say that I was extremely geared up to see a show about Gideon Mantell. While the show is broadly biographical, following him from cradle to grave, his life becomes a prism through which we understand Victorian science. The Victorians made enormous leaps in our understanding of the natural world - though these revelations were by no means easily accepted.

And so Kandinsky dramatises the key rifts in Victorian science. This begins with the class divisions between upper-class gentlemen scientists like Owen and Cuvier and middle and working class fossil-hunters like Mantell and Mary Anning (who I was slightly disappointed not to see get a name-check here). This feeds into a more serious rift, with young-earth Christianity and Genesis not having room for extinct prehistoric species and the millions of years required to produce fossils.

One of the most fascinating observations Kandinsky make is to explain how the concept of a creature changing form over time and becoming extinct was anathema to the upper-class Victorian consciousness. The scientists of the day looked to nature to justify the supremacy of their way of life (also a great way of securing patronage) and in Dinomania we hear how the theory that 'a mollusc may become a man' can be viewed as an attack on the rigid class structures.

It's a perspective the show reflects in Mantell's life. The child of shoemakers, he's told by his parents that the Mantells were once a great family and throughout the play we see him struggling to gain gentlemanly respectability. But, much as the Royal Geographical Society resist any 'progressive' ideas about adaptability, they resist his very presence among them and do their best to minimise his role in the discovery and classification of Iguanadon.

Kandinsky stages these arguments with their usual razor-sharp precision. The march of scientific progress and the discarding of incorrect or politically untimely theories is depicted by scientists dispatching each other with a pistol shot to the forehead, religious thought is heralded with hilariously overblown latin chanting and, in the play's best moment, the villain of the piece crumbles as he receives a vision of the future: his hated rival Charles Darwin is venerated and he dies miserable and alone. (Ha-ha! Suck it, Richard Owen).

I was never not going to enjoy a play that sits at the intersection of so many things I'm into, but it takes some serious skills to make a potentially dry subject so gripping. I've read a tonne about these dusty old scientists and in my imagination they are always the rigid, stern-looking men you see in their lithograph portraits (or the photographs of them as corpse-like old guys). Dinomania brings them to lusty, passionate life, blood pumping through their veins and sweat on their faces as they decipher the evidence left in rocks. 

I have no idea what subject Kandinsky are going to tackle next but I'll be there day one.

Dinomania is at the New Diorama Theatre until 23 March. Tickets here.

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