Kandinsky pits science against faith in this fossil-fuelled battle for intellectual dominance. Sophie Talbot has ring-side seats - let Dinomania commence:

It’s fight night at the New Diorama Theatre. Kandinsky‘s Dinomania: Gideon Mantell vs Richard Owen.

First to enter the ring is Mantell, doctor-turned-avid-fossil-collector who, in 1822, was the first to discover a tooth of the Iguanodon. He argues that this fossil, and indeed science, proves that a previously unknown, now-extinct species lived millions and millions of years ago.

Stepping up to challenge Mantell, it’s Owen. Renowned palaeontologist, he claims the tooth belonged to a rhino created by God, and that the world is only six thousand years old…

OK, so there’s no actual boxing ring onstage. But innovative theatre company Kandinksy certainly brings one to life.

Dinomania New Diorama

Sophie Steer, Hamish MacDougall & Harriet Webb (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Through exacting, stylised movement, the multi-talented, five-strong ensemble show Mantell, Owen and various other professional fossil-lovers circling and fighting each other on a raised square platform. Zac Gvirtzman‘s superbly melodramatic live piano score and the cast’s use of wry humour, pitched against bursts of loud, secular song effectively embody the rivalry between a bunch of real life 19th-century scientists.

Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen‘s set, comprising floor-to-ceiling gold curtains and an old-timey piano, is simple opulence. It screams gentlemen’s club, the aristocratic scientific establishments of the 1800s. Dinomania successfully transports us back to a different time, but it also constantly reminds us of the fight scientists like Mantell are facing today.

Dinomania New Diorama

Sophie Steer & Janet Etuk (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Mantell’s quest to prove the long-ago existence of dinosaurs was spurned by religious scientists who refused to waver from what the Bible told them. Fast-forward to the 21st century and we’re still ignoring scientific evidence. The ice caps are melting, our marine life is dying and yet we’re wrapping pairs of Mr Kipling’s slices in plastic.

There are numerous clever nods to these global issues in Dinomania. The fossils that Mantell collects are made out of frozen, misshapen clothes, the fast-fashion fossils we are leaving behind.

Kandinsky alludes to the ways we can save the planet, too. A stuffed, beige suede coat with a fur collar becomes a lion – Dinomania‘s resourcefulness is inspiring. And it’s also a reminder that theatre requires audiences to have faith in what they cannot see.

Because Dinomania definitely doesn’t dismiss faith. Instead it asks why people choose to ignore what’s right in front of them. Why did nobody listen to Mantell? Why are we still not listening to scientists today? Through art, Kandinsky shows a struggle between scientific and religious theories of evolution, but also how science and faith might coincide without either being left behind.

Dinomania New Diorama

Janet Etuk & Sophie Steer (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman‘s smart text is a tapestry of hundreds of threads – rich and layered, there’s so much going on. It’s a tale of progressiveness dominated by rich, white men, vitally reclaimed by women and people of colour in Kandinsky’s dynamic production.

At times Dinomania is exuberant and brilliant, but unfortunately Kandinsky doesn’t manage to keep this up throughout. After a punchy segment of evolutionist debate, the company gets bogged down by the narrative. The story becomes more serious, sure, but the absence of playfulness and boxing-ring rivalry is keenly felt, and techniques that were at first inventive are overused.

Dinomania New Diorama

Janet Etuk & Sophie Steer (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Dinomania claws it back, however, to end on a high. Mantell is left destitute while Owen triumphs, taking credit for Mantell’s ideas and founding the Natural History Museum. But Kandinsky is very clear. If history repeats itself, if we fail to listen science, there will be no winner.

★★★☆☆

Dinomania plays at the New Diorama Theatre until 23 March 2019. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the venue website.