Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 13 April 2019
A true story based on real events, Maud Dromgoole’s two-hander Mary’s Babies was inspired by Mary Barton, the founder of a London fertility clinic whose work resulted in the birth of an estimated 1,500 babies – many of whom were fathered by Mary’s own husband, Bertold Wiesner. The play imagines what would happen if some of those children found each other, and in doing so reflects on the true nature of family, legacy and what really makes us who we are.
Two actors – Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens – heroically play 39 characters over 90 minutes in this fast-moving and often very funny production directed by Tatty Hennessy. Both handle the multitude of male and female roles with apparent ease, getting the balance just right between keeping each character unique and recognisable to the audience, and simultaneously demonstrating the half-siblings’ genetic similarities to each other.
For the avoidance of doubt, however, for each scene the names of the two characters involved are illuminated in picture frames hanging on the wall behind them. This helpful feature of Anna Reid’s minimalist set allows us to quickly identify who we’re looking at, and certainly makes the play much easier to follow as more characters are introduced – though it can easily be overlooked at first, particularly as the first scene draws our attention away from that part of the set.
Most of the 39 characters appear only once, the majority in a single particularly chaotic party scene. The play focuses its attention primarily on just six people, whose reactions to the startling discovery of their heritage cover a broad spectrum. For some of them, the revelation of where they come from is welcome news; for others, it’s devastating. Some view their new-found siblings as an instant family, while others can’t help but continue to see them as strangers.
One character, who isn’t – as far as she knows, at least – a member of the Barton Brood, is envious of her partner’s new “sibs”, her relationship with her own recently deceased father having brought her little happiness. Another discovers to his horror that he’s both father and uncle to his unborn child, after unwittingly marrying his half-sister.
Even with this limited number of central characters, there’s a lot going on, and the play’s relatively short running time of 90 minutes means we never get to delve in depth into any of the individual stories. We do, however, get some interesting questions to take away and think about in our own time. Questions like: what makes someone family? Do our genes or our upbringing have more impact on the person we become? And is it necessarily a good thing to know where you came from, or is it better to remain blissfully ignorant?
There are a few scenes scattered throughout the play that feel superfluous and rather left-field (even after re-reading it, I’m still confused by the one about the chickens), and consequently distract from the main narrative. Some moments feel unnecessarily flippant, like the Catherine Tate-esque registrar who definitely shouldn’t be allowed to deal with bereaved customers. And it’s not a production for the easily distracted; each scene lasts on average about three minutes, with some significantly shorter, so it’s literally possible to blink and miss a crucial detail.
For the most part, though, Mary’s Babies is enjoyable and witty, and surprisingly easy to follow despite its complicated structure. A thought-provoking play, and an impressive feat of endurance and versatility from two talented performers.
Mary’s Babies is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 13th April.
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