Secret Life Of Humans presents an optimism for a humankind that can renounce violence and continue to progress, comments journalist Tom Preston.

Given its millennia-spanning time scope, Secret Life Of Humans asks many universal questions on the nature of what it is to be human in such a brief, 80-minute running time. The play opens on a university lecture, where research scientist Ava (Stella Taylor) invites us to explore an inherent vestigial trait, one we have carried with us since our days as primates. We extend an arm and touch our thumb and little finger to expose a tendon that has long been a useless feature in our anatomy. Our inherited characteristics that the play explores later, however, are far less benign.

Secret Life Of Humans New Diorama Theatre

Stella Taylor & Andrew Strafford-Baker (image courtesy of David Monteith-Hodge)

David Byrne’s script, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is an ambitious time-hopping endeavour, one that largely succeeds. Gliding effortlessly from philosophical debate to period thriller and back again, it focuses on mathematician and TV presenter Dr Jacob ‘Bruno’ Bronowski (Richard Delaney) during a lesser known period of his life and career when he worked for the UK’s Ministry of Home Security during WWII. But we are kept firmly in the present with Ava’s guidance and her own narrative with Bronowski’s grandson, Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker). Following an awkward Tinder date, the two discover the secrets in a locked room of Bronowski’s empty London house, which no one entered until after he died.

Designer Jen McGinley’s moving set of tables and bookshelves on wheels gives the narrative an added fluidity, allowing us to move from one time period to another without missing a beat – one moment we are with Jamie and Ava as they are eagerly reading through Bronowski’s journals, then a simple turn of the set and we see the memory itself as Bronowski appears out of the ether. It doesn’t work on all occasions, but when it does, it’s a thrilling technique that keeps the action flowing.

Secret Life Of Humans New Diorama Theatre

Stella Taylor (image courtesy of David Monteith-Hodge)

Secret Life Of Humans could have been solely about Bronowski and his legacy, but Byrne’s script smartly keeps us grounded with the inclusion of grandson Jamie. Such presence in the present helps us steady the mirror the show holds up to us – are we, as a species, heading for destruction? Or are we able to transcend our inherited traits? Byrne and co-director Kate Stanley’s direction is lively and constantly engaging; they are able to wring a great many emotions from their hard-working cast while simultaneously juggling, at times, three scenes from three time periods. It’s impressive work within a show whose concept is genuinely original and its storytelling method innovative.

Working harmoniously with Yaiza Varona’s compositions and sound, the lighting design from Cat Webb is subtle and effective in a range of locations, from the busy bar of Jamie and Ava’s date, to the tense, intimate moments within Bronowski’s locked room. That’s not to say they can’t assault the senses, such as when they plunge us into the chaos of the bombing at Dresden in a darker moment of realisation at what exactly Bronowski was working on with the government. The audience never feels lost in this creative team’s hands.

Secret Life Of Humans New Diorama Theatre

Richard Delaney & Olivia Hirst (image courtesy of David Monteith-Hodge)

Secret Life Of Humans builds on two ironies. Firstly, as a species, togetherness was (and is) key to our survival, yet all we seem to do is kill. The second surrounds Bronowski’s positive view of human progress, a posit that we have conquered the journey of escape – we have eluded early death, famine and poverty. But for all his optimism, the play’s most troubling revelation is that violence is still our most pronounced vestigial trait. Ava points out that Homo sapiens are the only homo species left on the planet – the others are extinct because our ancestors murdered them. Bronowski himself lives this realisation, both in his work developing mathematical approaches to bombing strategies during WWII, and when he sees the graves at Auschwitz or the bombsites of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, for his television series, The Ascent of Man.

Secret Life Of Humans New Diorama Theatre

Richard Delaney & Andy McLeod (image courtesy of David Monteith-Hodge)

The production drives my thoughts to the recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria, to the experts and strategists behind those operations. Do they suffer any guilt for being implicit in these atrocities, as Bronowski did? It’s a chilling thought to have when a current atrocity can pierce the sealed world of the auditorium, but it adds to the show’s potency.

Towards the end of the play Bronowski and Ava profess,

“The only thing we’ve learned from history…is that we don’t learn from history”.

Our inherited tendency for violence is difficult to shake from the current world in which we live. But Byrne gives us a shred of hope in the form of Bertrand Russell projected over the stage, who tells us that in our closely connected world,

“We have to learn to tolerate each other if we are to live together and not die together”.

It’s a tacked-on sentiment, but clearly underlines Secret Life Of Humans’ optimism for a humankind that can renounce violence and continue to progress. As a species we have a shared history, but more importantly a shared future.




Secret Life Of Humans runs at New Diorama Theatre until 5 May 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.