Theatre review: Secret Life Of Humans | Lilith: The Jungle Girl

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: It's not the most obvious theme in Edinburgh this year but still, it weaves its way through the official Festival and Fringe, from the EIF production of Rhinoceros on down.

The Jungle Girl. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

Secret Life Of Humans

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

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The Secret Life of Humans. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

Lilith: The Jungle Girl

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)


The question is what it means to be human, and what – if anything – distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. New Diorama Theatre, with Greenwich Theatre and the Pleasance, tackle it head-on in their thoughtful and beautifully presented new play inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, about the well-known mathematician and scientist Jacob Bronowski, most famous for his iconic 1973 television series The Ascent Of Man.

The Secret Life of Humans. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

Set in three time-frames, Secret Life Of Humans begins in the present day, when Bronowski’s grandson – clearing the family home after his grandmother’s death – meets an ambitious young female scientist in a bar, and brings her home for the night. She is fascinated to hear the story, told in Harari’s book, about the locked room in Bronowski’s house where he kept his secrets and in no time we are plunged back into the story of Bronowski’s wartime experience as an emigré Polish scientist living in London, asked to help the government with calculations to assist the devastating fire-bombing of German cities – while beyond both stories, images of ancient humans taking their first steps towards what we call civilisation are presented, with brilliant imagination, as if in a different dimension entirely.

David Byrne’s play is sometimes too explicit in its exploration of these themes, as if it doesn’t quite trust the audience to grasp the questions it raises about the intensely optimistic view of humankind and its progress presented by Bronowski in The Ascent Of Man. Yet it offers a strikingly accomplished, absorbing and enjoyable hour of drama on the Fringe, featuring a touching central performance from Richard Delaney as Bronowski, and Andrew Strafford-Baker as his grandson Jamie.

Over at the Traverse, meanwhile, the Sisters Grimm’s Lilith: The Jungle Girl tackles similar questions about science, human nature, and human arrogance, along with that other great Fringe theme of 2017, colonial attitudes and their legacy. The scene is 19th-century Amsterdam, where an overweening young scientist called Penworth and his devoted female sidekick Travers – played in wild absurdist style by Candy Bowers and Genevieve Giuffre – find their researches at a city hospital interrupted by the delivery of a beast just arrived from Borneo, where it has been found living with a pride of lions.

The beast – while obviously a man, played with flair by Ash Flanders – is designated a woman, named Lilith, and eventually trained up to go about in society in clogs and a windmill headdress, in an absolute apotheosis of all the colonial attitudes to which she has been subjected so far; and by the end of the show, she is neither man, woman nor beast, rejected even by the lions in the zoo.

The problem with the show, of course, is that its over-the-top, laugh-hungry, and sometimes frankly tedious comic style completely lets off the hook any member of the audience who wants to treat it as a mere romp. For those interested in looking further, though, there’s plenty of substance here; and a sharp reminder that the brutal legacy of colonialism involves both humankind and the natural world, and the vital borderlands between the two.

Secret Life Of Humans until 28 August. Today 6:30pm. Lilith: The Jungle Girl until 27 August. Today 3:45pm.