What a brilliant title for a show in the Natural History Museum! The poster was excellent, too: an assemblage of creatures dressed and posed as for a Victorian family portrait. However, I still wasn't sure what to expect from a night in the museum with the Dead Secrets. I think I had in mind a Reduced Shakespeare Company-style dash through natural history from Terence the Trilobite to Dolly the Sheep.
The show started brilliantly. We were seated in two long thin rows, like the rowers in an ancient ship, between the sperm whale jawbone and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, on either side of the iguanodon, with the ceiling arching over us like a giant ribcage. Over our heads, the iguanodon and T Rex, illuminated green in the shadows of the display cabinets, began to banter. On the tiny stage, a couple of dodos came to life, musing with suspicion on the phrase "dead as a dodo".
We were then treated to a series of sketches new and old linked (sometimes a little tenuously) to the theme of "Visions of Nature" the Museum has adopted this year, exploring the history of mankind's relationship with nature. Some of the Dead Secrets sketches are so brilliant that, like classic Monty Python or Peter Cook & Dudley Moore scenes, they bear watching again and again. It was delightful to enjoy afresh the story of the military's Space Geese experiment, and the hunt for the Higgs Boson produced in the style of a blockbuster movie.
New material included less than I had expected of the animal kingdom, and more of historic characters related to the Museum and the development of science, such as a comic imagining of why Dorothy Franklin really missed out on recognition for discovering the structure of DNA. The material which went down least well was that in which Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, the Angel Gabriel, Jesus Christ, and the Devil appear together, relating to the Evolution Debate held in the Museum in 1860. I sensed a slight tension when Jesus appeared, and there seemed to be an uncomfortable reluctance in the audience to laugh at scenes depicting Jesus Christ (though Ida Persson did look great in that beard) – I'm not sure whether the problem was the script or the Saviour.
Undoubtedly the new sketch which elicited the most uncontrollable mirth was Boaty McFace Face on the stormy seas (created hilariously by Jen Sugden and Ida, with yards of blue hand towel, inflatable seagull and lots of water spraying), with Henry Acland (Regius Professor of Medicine) aboard, bringing back a giant fish exhibit for the Museum – it was fast, funny, and surreal.
The Dead Secrets have two great talents, at extreme opposite ends of the comic spectrum. One is for ruthlessly and intelligently pruning their tried and tested sketch material until all that remains is pure comic gold. The other is for improvising fast-paced comic material on the spur of the moment, with a keen sense of when a joke can be milked and milked for more and more laughs, and when to stop and move on. The audience really enjoyed the technical hitch, when loss of sound forced them to go off-script; and I think would have loved to see more of their lively real-time improvisation.