Helena Payne reviews Mary’s Babies a play by Maud Dromgoole now playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre London.
Jermyn Street Theatre
23 March 2019
Jermyn Street Theatre’s latest offering is the sublime Mary’s Babies written by the astonishingly gifted Maud Dromgoole and directed with sensitivity and wit by Tatty Hennesey. The two-hander tells the mesmerising story of a Harley Street fertility clinic in the 1930s run by Mary Barton who used a very select pool of genetic material, mostly her husband’s resulting in hundreds of children born unaware they had a hoard of siblings. Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding do an exceptional job of playing 39 characters and Jai Morjaria’s elegant lighting subtly compliments the changing mood of the piece. Don’t miss this remarkable story and compelling production.
The theatre’s intimate space is clinically stark with two ottomans set downstage right. Our focus is drawn to the back wall on which hang multiple empty picture frames. We begin with a monologue delivered by one of the more central characters in the piece, Kieran, the first to discover his unusual heritage and realise the implications. This also introduces us to the clever conceit of Anna Reid’s design; the names behind the picture frames rotate to ensure we know who’s speaking. Funnily, though, 15 minutes into the play and we hardly need check them, such is the clarity of story-telling and characterisation.
As Kieran searches for more of his “sibs” we are introduced to a cavalcade of individuals, some well adjusted and happy, some deeply scarred, desperate to feel a sense of belonging and to join the “Barton brood.” Reid’s simple costuming assists Stephens and Fielding as they transform from character to character. It is a privilege to watch them in close proximity and each individual feels detailed and authentic. Stephens excels in the more comedic moments, with quicksilver delivery using her gangly physicality to perfection. Whilst Fielding emanates real heart and seems to possess such deep emotional reservoirs reminding us that despite these strange circumstances, there were real human lives devastated by the behaviour of the clinic. They work well together guiding us through what could easily be a bewildering and baffling story.
There are instances where the imagined siblings have met each other later in life and pursued relationships before discovering they were related. Dromgoole probes these awkward yet heart-breaking realisations with warmth and delicacy. We never feel that she is engineering these situations for shock or provocation. We generally invest in her characters and their bizarre and complex predicament. The pace romps along with most scene changes punctuated by some somewhat discordant violins. I assume this was to give us a sense of momentum but for me, it felt neither relevant nor required.
There are many ways one could explore the premise of Mary’s Babies. Indeed, the legal implications and stipulations that came into place after cases such as this would be fascinating to know, but Dromgoole centres her play on the human. With humour and tenderness, she questions how we define ourselves and the significance of the relationship between identity and genetic parentage. Along with a fantastic creative team and actors, Dromgoole proves herself a writer of calibre and potential. I look forward to her work to come.
Until 13 April 2019