An eclectic and beautiful production – Secret Life of Humans combines a baffling diversity of genres into a single theatrical masterpiece. It’s a daring show that explores history, science and human nature in a way that is mesmerising to watch.
Nothing less than a theatrical triumph
The ambitious storyline mashes together multiple genres: a historical drama is spliced with a Tinder date romcom, and then merged with an anthropology lecture. Confused yet? Well, Ava (Stella Blue Taylor) is an academic who swipes right on Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), and the pair go out on a date. Jamie, it transpires, is the grandson of Dr Jacob Bronowski (Richard Delaney), a long-dead scientist famous for presenting the BBC TV series The Ascent of Man. Soon Ava and Jamie begin to uncover the dark secrets of Bronowski’s past: the scientist was co-opted into some morally ambiguous military research during the Second World War. The story of Bronowski’s wartime research unfolds alongside that of Ava and Jamie; the actors weave in and out of each others’ scenes as the focus jumps back and forth. From time to time, Ava breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, explaining some concept within biology, philosophy or social science. The elaborate narrative might easily have become an impenetrable tangle, but the robust direction of Kate Stanley and David Byrne prevents this.
The acting is excellent and no member of the five-person cast disappoints. Taylor is particularly worthy of mention - switching effortlessly from her role as the single-minded Ava to playing a more distant narrator surveying the action. The professorial Richard Delaney also excels portraying the conflicted Dr Bronowski.
Aesthetically, the play is phenomenal. Jen McGinley’s beautifully designed set rolls seamlessly across the stage, changing the atmosphere of each scene with a slick elegance that is delightful to watch. The back wall is illuminated with captivating projections, courtesy of Zakk Hein: cave paintings morph into celestial constellations and then into archive footage. From time to time characters walk across the walls, suspended on invisible wires. Impressively, this visual extravaganza is perfectly coordinated with the actions of the cast.
Finally, the play is made especially meaningful by its graceful exploration of complex concepts. Byrne’s script asks poignant questions about how social and evolutionary history shape our actions in the present day, and whether human society is getting better or worse. The influence of theorists like Yuval Harari is apparent throughout the piece, however, at no point does the injection of philosophical debate impede the fluid enjoyment of the performance.
Seldom does a show manage to combine so many complex elements with such ease. The stunning execution of an intriguing concept makes Secret Life of Humans nothing less than a theatrical triumph.