Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 22nd March 2019
“a hugely ambitious play that doesn’t quite succeed in its intentions”
In the 1930s, Dr Mary Barton and her husband, Dr Bertold Wiesner, founded one of the first clinics to treat infertility with donor insemination. Because the practice was new, there were no regulations regarding donor selection. Barton said she had a small pool of select donors, but thanks to DNA testing, we now know the majority of the 1,500 women who were treated by Barton were inseminated with Wiesner’s sperm.
Written by Maud Dromgoole and directed by Tatty Hennessy, Mary’s Babies imagines various intersecting lives of a handful of people who discover they share Wiesner’s DNA. There’s considerable skill in Dromgoole’s windows into lives that are rich, genuine, and occasionally touching. However, despite the creative team’s best efforts to maintain clarity, with just two actors multi-roling so many different characters with such abrupt alternation, a lot is lost in the shuffle.
Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding take on a total of thirty-nine different characters, although the play primarily revolves around five. Stephens and Fielding are strong performers (they admirably handled a technical difficulty which stopped the show midway), and Stephens in particular impresses with her vivid transformations. An ingenious set design (Anna Reid) that displays the names of the characters on a wall, which light up according to who is in each scene, is indispensable.
But even with first-rate multi-roling and displayed character names, the play can be difficult to follow. Hennessy’s choice of minimalism for an informationally dense piece, and Dromgoole’s choppy, short scenes with vague dialogue, leave large gaps for meaning to fall through. Entire scenes often hinge on one word that is too easily lost. I missed the word ‘eulogy’ in the opening monologue, so didn’t get why Stephens was reading off a script, thinking it couldn’t be possible she didn’t have the lines memorised. I missed the word ‘polydactyl’ in another scene, and was perplexed by the fuss about Stephens’ hand.
Additionally, the characters’ ages don’t transmit well. A reveal toward the end that two characters are twins doesn’t click; I spent the performance believing one was about ten years younger than the other. All of them, who are dating and planning/having children, seem to be in their thirties. Kieran, arguably the main character, comes off as early twenties. They jar with the maths, which says their age range is forty to eighty (the play takes place in 2007 and the clinic closed in 1967). It’s evident Dromgoole wanted to write younger characters. The play may have been stronger if it were set in the present, about a fictional artificial insemination scandal in the 1980s.
This is a hugely ambitious play that doesn’t quite succeed in its intentions. Too much visual and verbal information fails to communicate. The script seems better suited to film, which would solve a lot of its problems.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Robert Workman
Jermyn Street Theatre until 13th April
Previously reviewed at this venue: