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Secret Life of Humans Review

Secret Life of Humans, Pleasance Courtyard – Review

Pros: Outstanding design; great performances.

Cons: Some characters less developed than the ideas they are meant to express.

Pros: Outstanding design; great performances. Cons: Some characters less developed than the ideas they are meant to express. New Diorama's Secret Life of Humans was the most theatrically ambitious of the shows on my Fringe schedule. Its message, to 'delve back at what shaped and formed us as a species', inspired by the work of bestselling historian -of-humankind Yuval Harari. Mostly, I was relieved that the show wore its extensive research lightly, delivering a thought-provoking and beautiful spectacle instead of an academic treatise. A jewel box of different stories contributed to the overarching narrative which examined humanity's 'progress', or…

Summary

Rating

Good

An agile, clever - but occasionally unbalanced - journey to the centre of human nature.

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New Diorama’s Secret Life of Humans was the most theatrically ambitious of the shows on my Fringe schedule. Its message, to ‘delve back at what shaped and formed us as a species’, inspired by the work of bestselling historian -of-humankind Yuval Harari. Mostly, I was relieved that the show wore its extensive research lightly, delivering a thought-provoking and beautiful spectacle instead of an academic treatise.

A jewel box of different stories contributed to the overarching narrative which examined humanity’s ‘progress’, or lack thereof. At the centre, Jacob ‘Bruno’ Bronowski (brilliantly played by Richard Delaney): famed TV series presenter of The Ascent of Man, and a brilliant mathematician (‘progress’)… and, a WWII bomb strategist indirectly responsible for the death of thousands of civilians who hid the evidence in a locked office (arguably, ‘lack thereof’). Framing Bruno’s story, his fictional grandson Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) gets lucky on a Tinder date with Ava (Stella Blue Taylor), an academic with conveniently strong opinions about Bruno.

Thanks to a holy trinity of outstanding design: projection (Zakk Hein) set (Jen McGinley) and sound (Yaiza Varona), each story nestled beautifully into the next. The very opening scene, a ‘lecture’ given directly to the audience by a spotlit woman (Ava, we later find out) managed to introduce Ava’s research, summarise the main story of mankind’s ‘vestigial’ links to the past and also show Bruno as the TV celebrity he was. Jen McGinley’s pitch-perfect set transformed the space with impressive fluidity, eventually revealing Bruno’s wife in Bruno’s secret office, like a jewel box fairy.

Beautiful and elegant as the plot’s movement was, the extreme neatness of Jamie and Ava’s story left me unconvinced. I gamely suspended my disbelief that Ava – a casual date – could gain access to enough secret information to fulfil the plot’s demands. I lost a bit of patience when asked to believe that Ava – not Jamie, or Bruno’s wife – was the first to bother looking for such information. What really bothered me, though, was the characters’ conversation once they had the information. The polarised positions they had to take as (engaging but underwritten) characters never allowed them the truly penetrating discussion on human ‘progress’ that I felt the show had promised I would hear.

Perspectives and time were forever shifting in the visual world of The Secret Life of Humans. It was thrilling that dusty offices became the insides of minds, bookshelves became beds, and that gravity-defying feats of theatrical wizardry gave the audience a bird’s (or god’s) eye view of people. The human characters’ perspectives were too fixed to be anywhere near as thrilling. But perhaps that’s the point…

Writer: David Byrne
Director: David Byrne and Kate Stanley
Producer: New Diorama, Greenwich Theatre, Pleasance
Set Design: Jen McGinley
Projection Design: Zakk Hein
Lighting Design: Geoff Hense
Sound Design & Composition: Yaiza Varona

Box Office: 020 7609 1800
Booking Link: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/secret-life-of-humans
Booking Until: 28 August 2017.

About Laura Sampson

Laura Sampson
Laura is a London-born arts evangelist and self-confessed jack-of-all-trades. She ended up studying English and Medieval studies at UCL, then worked in publishing before running off to Tokyo to eat sushi and study Noh drama. Now back in London, she's a stage design agent, storytelling promoter, singer, and radio sound engineer, among other things. She loves seeing all kinds of theatre, and she's particularly partial to anything a bit mythological.