Mark Ludmon reviews She Sells Sea Shells presented by Scandal and Gallows at Underbelly Cowgate as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Everyone knows the tongue twister, “She sells sea shells on the sea shore”, but few remember that it was inspired by Mary Anning, one of the 19th-century pioneers of palaeontology. In fact, in the world of fossil science, her overall importance is little remembered, drowned out by men at a time when professional bodies and universities excluded women. Theatre company Scandal and Gallows is trying to put Anning back in the history books with their inventive production of Helen Eastman’s new play She Sells Sea Shells.
In an enthralling piece of storytelling, the three-strong cast takes us back to Anning’s childhood hunting for fossils with her brother Joe on the beaches and cliffs around Lyme Regis in Dorset. Inspired by her father, she develops a passion for palaeontology, educating herself to a level comparable with the world’s top experts despite being a working-class woman living in near poverty. As well as selling her ammonites and other fossils on the sea shore for pennies, she discovered the remains of the world’s first ichthyosaur – a giant crocodile-like dinosaur – in 1811 when aged only 12. By the time she was 30, her discoveries made up a substantial part of Europe’s fossil collections but her name was never credited by the male collectors presenting them to the public and their peers.
The play opens as if the audience is attending a modern-day lecture but, under director Madeleine Skipsey, the cast bring Anning’s story to life with a host of different characters and theatrical flair including a fluid physicality thanks to movement director Samuel Rayner. Antonia Weir plays Mary as a blunt, no-nonsense woman who only softens when talking about the beauty of the fossils she finds. She is supported in a huge variety of roles by Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, mixing history with playfulness and humour. More than 170 years after Anning’s death at only 47, they are now telling her story and it is unforgettable.
Running to 25 August 2019