Dinosaur Detectives is less Jurassic Park and more Time Team. Stephen and Leigh are dinosaur detectives (you can tell because they’re always waving magnifying glasses about) intent on following in the footsteps of dinosaur bones. Rather than taking us back to prehistoric times, though, this quest transports its audience to Lyme Regis in the 1800s. The stars of the show are three Victorian fossil collectors, geologists, and palaeontologists: Mary Anning, William Buckland and Gideon Mantell. The play’s tenser moments include carefully excavating fossils and an unexpected interruption in a lecture about their findings – this is the serious, rather than the sexy, side of dinosaur discovery.
Just as important as the discoveries themselves, are the conflicts surrounding these significant finds. Theologian William Buckland’s discoveries came up against his religion, as he tried to reconcile the biblical account of the world’s creation with the historical and scientific findings he made. Initially, Buckland believed that the fossils found in Kirkdale Cave were proof of the great flood and Noah’s Ark but his analysis revealed an alternative understanding of the earth’s past. It was Buckland who named the bones of a giant reptile a Megalosaurus, and Buckland who wrote the first account of what would later be known as a dinosaur; alongside these exciting revelations, Clydebuilt Puppet show Buckland questioning his maker, asking him: “Who made such terrible creatures? Why did they disappear? Where do you come into all this, Lord? And what if they ever came back?”
The play also highlights the key role of Mary Anning, as well as the limited access she had to the scientific community as a woman. Mary searched the cliffs of Lyme Regis for fossils, at first selling them to support her family who were very poor (Anning is the subject of the tongue twister, “She sells seashells on the seashore”). Her discoveries, including full dinosaur skeletons, and observations had a major impact on the field, particularly as evidence for extinction. Still, her work was co-opted and her contributions un-credited. In the play, Buckland and Mantell are hugely excited by the display of dinosaur bones, and first depiction of what dinosaurs might have looked like, included in the Great Exhibition; though Anning was the one who actually found the fossils, she didn’t attend, unable to afford to travel.
Dinosaur Detectives combines puppetry, projections and theatre shadows to dust off these stories of discovery and bring them to life. It’s not for the faint-hearted, though – at one point, a puppet William Buckland delivers a paper on his discoveries, going through slides with pictures of different fossils. For dino-enthusiasts, Dinosaur Detectives is a fascinating depiction of the first fossil finds and the impact their discovery had on our understanding of the world and its history. However, for those who can’t tell a T-Rex from a Pterodactyl and don’t see the appeal of preserved bones, it might not be your cup of tea.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.