Review: How The World Began, Arcola

“I must have said something that sounded like gobbledygook”

When Catherine Trieschmann’s play How The World Began premiered in the US last month, it carried the advisory note “isn’t for theatregoers who might feel uncomfortable with views on evolution.” There might not quite be the same level of debate between creationists and Darwinists in this country, at least not in such a visual way, but what is striking about Trieschmann’s writing is how little of that debate she is actually interested in here, despite using it as her starting point.

Susan Pierce is an unmarried, pregnant, fully-paid-up liberal escaping a sticky personal situation in New York by training to become a science teacher on the job in a random placement far away. Where she ends up is Plainview, Kansas, a small town rebuilding itself after a deadly tornado, but her desire for a new start in a new place does not extend to adapting to the different mindset there and her uncompromising views of the teaching of science and a carelessness in dealing with the beliefs of others sets up a fierce clash between her and Micah, a student who takes offence at her dismissive comments, and his protective guardian.

Perry Millward’s disturbed Micah, left orphaned by the tornado that killed his father, his mother having recently passed away from some terminal illness, has the nagging insistence of a moody teenager who won’t be fobbed off as he resorts to increasingly drastic means to get what he wants. Anna Francolini brings some appealing life to the harassed Susan whose inexperience and liberal indignance takes her dangerously close to condescension as she fails to appreciate just how much of a hornet’s nest she has stirred (and how eminently unsuitable to be a teacher she is). And together they occupy opposing viewpoints as he demands an apology for blithely offending his religious beliefs that she is unwilling to give.

But sadly that is it, there’s no real dialogue between the two, there’s no sense of genuine discourse between the radical standpoints which flattens out any interest in these protagonists once the initial dramatic flurries have passed. Indeed the latter part of the piece may as well be a radio play for the amount of exposition, of the detailing of dramatic events elsewhere, Des Kennedy’s direction unable to overcome the limitations of the writing. The introduction of a third character Gene, superficially as a moderating influence, also falls flat as he simply serves as the playwright’s device to make whatever point she feels like making: at times he is uneducated and uncouth, at others he is able to quote Shakespeare – Ciaran McIntyre does his best here but there is precious little to work with.

As the play slides into a version of The Crucible, the sense of lost opportunities really began to get to me as the unforgiving seating of the Arcola’s smaller studio punished my posterior. Alyson Cummins’ simple temporary classroom design is effective enough, but the sweeping ceiling installation onto which Ben Gutteridge’s cosmos-related video work is projected is not quite best suited for the purpose. And within the play itself, there’s no progression in anyone’s understanding of the other, or of themselves, and so the audience is left none the wiser: the initial US advisory note is actually completely unnecessary as all How The World Began ends up doing is reinforcing the view one already holds. There’s no challenge here, no real debate and so I left really rather disappointed.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 10th December

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