Review: Mary’s Babies at Jermyn Street Theatre

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.

Mary's Babies at Jermyn Street Theatre
Photo credit: Robert Workman

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?

Mary's Babies at Jermyn Street Theatre
Photo credit: Robert Workman

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.

Review: Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre

This week, a teenage girl in the States crashed her car whilst attempting the Bird Box Challenge, prompting the local police to issue a statement begging people not to drive whilst blindfolded. The seventeen-year-old probably thought she would post the video online and bask in the admiration of her followers. Instead, her (unquestionably foolish) actions have made her the target of ridicule and vitriol from total strangers across the globe, the vast majority questioning her right to drive, to reproduce, and even to exist.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

I was reminded of this story whilst watching Rose Heiney’s Original Death Rabbit, directed by Hannah Joss, in which a young woman (Kimberley Nixon) inadvertently becomes an Internet meme – the Death Rabbit – after being photographed in the background of a child’s funeral procession wearing a pink bunny onesie. Seeking an escape from her own insecurities and the trauma of her father’s recently diagnosed schizophrenia, she throws herself headlong into the world of the Original Death Rabbit, eventually becoming so consumed by her online persona that she begins to lose any sense of her real identity. Now, on the eve of her 32nd birthday, she looks back over her decade of Internet “fame” and reflects on how it’s affected her life, relationships and mental health. More importantly, she sets out to do what the Internet so often fails to do – provide context to explain how she’s ended up where she is.

Kimberley Nixon gives an outstanding performance, commanding our attention and sympathy throughout as she engagingly delivers Rose Heiney’s insightful and witty script. For someone like the Original Death Rabbit, who’s always judged herself on how others perceive her (she was once wracked with guilt after being told by a friend that her favourite poet Philip Larkin was a racist and misogynist, and that by liking him she was aligning herself with his views) the Internet was always going to be a dangerous place, and her obsessive reaction to it is inevitable but also very relatable – whether or not we like to admit it. Anyone who’s ever been active on social media knows the little thrill of seeing a post liked or shared, and the sense of rejection – or worse – when something we’ve said or done online fails to land as we intended. The Original Death Rabbit’s need to be validated by the approval of strangers might be extreme, but it’s also very understandable.

But that’s not all we can relate to. The minute I walked in and saw Louie Whitemore’s set – a cluttered, neglected living room in which the only pristine items are the Richard Curtis movie posters adorning the walls – I had a feeling the play was going to be right up my street, and I wasn’t wrong. The Original Death Rabbit might be flawed but she’s not unlikeable, and our 90 minutes with her are easily as entertaining as they are disturbing. She has a passionate – bordering on aggressive – love for Richard Curtis movies, which gets some of the biggest laughs of the night, along with her sardonic impressions of her whiney younger sister and patronising leftie friend. And her story, though dark, is also enjoyably quirky (let’s be honest, anything involving a pink bunny suit would struggle to be too deadly serious).

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Funny, sad, brilliantly performed and with a cautionary message that feels more necessary by the day, Original Death Rabbit kicks off Jermyn Street Theatre’s 25th anniversary year in triumphant style. Highly recommended.

Original Death Rabbit is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February.

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Review: Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Marking the centenary of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end, Proud Haddock’s excellent revival of Billy Bishop Goes to War is a fitting tribute to all those who risked – and in many cases, gave – their lives in combat. The show tells the remarkable true story of WWI pilot Billy Bishop, who was credited as the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war with 72 victories to his name. But don’t be fooled; despite first appearances, some very jolly tunes and the show’s Enid Blyton-esque title, as the evening goes on there’s a mounting sense of anger and dismay at the utter pointlessness and waste of both this particular conflict, and war in general.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

It all begins cheerfully enough; 20-year-old Billy Bishop enlists in 1914 and leaves his home in Owen Sound, Ontario, eager to have a laugh and kill some Germans. A year later, he joins the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, and helped along by the patronage of London socialite Lady St Helier, a year after that he trains as a pilot and takes triumphantly to the skies, machine gun in hand. But though Billy’s skill and courage earn him medals, promotions and international acclaim, after a while the thrill of shooting down the enemy – however successfully – can no longer quite compensate for the loss of countless friends, the longing for home, or the dawning realisation that the lives he’s taking might be more than just numbers on a scoreboard.

The two-hander, directed by Jimmy Walters, is performed brilliantly by Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish, who play the younger and older Billy, and who complement each other perfectly. Aitken takes centre stage (and beyond) as the charismatic young pilot, quickly establishing a rapport with the audience and unafraid to bear his soul in the play’s darker moments. Beamish, meanwhile, is a steadier, more reflective presence, who keeps out of the way and spends the majority of the play tucked quietly behind a piano.

Both men also play a number of other parts, often to hilarious effect: among them Billy’s patron Lady St Helier, her snooty butler Cedric, and the various officers and dignitaries who have no qualms about placing their men in harm’s way, or using them as figureheads when the occasion suits. It’s at these moments that we’re reminded most forcibly that Billy – like so many others – was not a British soldier, but a Canadian dragged into another nation’s war, only to be manipulated shamelessly by those who considered themselves superior but who weren’t willing to step up and pay the price they expected of others.

Just as the actors show us two sides of the same man, so Daisy Blower’s set cleverly toes the line between a WWI bunker and a 1950s man-cave, so that like Billy himself, we feel we’re simultaneously in two different time zones. The level of detail in the set is astonishing and the overall effect – enhanced further by light (Arnim Friess) and sound design (Dinah Mullen) – is visually stunning, with so much to look at that it almost feels more than one visit is needed to take it all in.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most popular play in Canadian theatrical history, and it’s not hard to see why. The show certainly doesn’t glorify war, but it does celebrate heroism, in particular that of a young man willing to risk everything for someone else’s country. Despite all that he did for us, few Brits in 2018 have even heard of Billy Bishop – and for that reason alone, the play deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Fortunately, the quality of the production more than lives up to the importance of the story it’s telling; beautifully performed, designed and directed, this timely revival is a must-see.

Billy Bishop Goes to War ran at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th November. Catch it again at Southwark Playhouse from 13th March to 6th April.

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Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

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Review: Mad as Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre

In 1977, Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his career-defining appearance in Network. His award was accepted, at the insistence of the film’s writer Paddy Chayefsky, by his third wife, Eletha Finch. Despite the couple’s twelve-year relationship, a Google search reveals hardly any information about Eletha or their life together.

Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane aim to put that right in Mad as Hell, which charts the story of Peter and Eletha from their first encounter in a bar in Jamaica. By this time, Finch was already no stranger to scandal, and was in the throes of a messy divorce from his second wife following a well-publicised affair with Shirley Bassey. But despite its personal success, his final marriage to Eletha – who was black, illegitimate and from a working class family – proved even harder for Hollywood to swallow, a fact that enraged Finch until the day he died, and directly influenced his Oscar-winning turn as “mad as hell” newsreader Howard Beale.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

Stephen Hogan gives a charismatic performance as Finch, full of impotent fury and incomprehension at the refusal of society to see beyond the colour of his wife’s skin. His exchanges with Alexandra Mardell, who plays his former lover Debbie, are particularly interesting and reveal that racism isn’t simply a case of black and white; as a Liverpool-born black woman, Debbie looks down her nose at Eletha, just as Eletha later expresses disdain for Bob Marley.

But it’s Vanessa Donovan who steals the show as Eletha; proud, determined and fiercely loyal, she’s not afraid to go after what she wants, and she stands by her man through thick and thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s always likeable, or that we agree with everything she says or does – but her devotion to her husband, and her unwavering dignity in the face of a community that believes her unworthy to be at his side, are inspiring to watch.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

The play covers twelve years in a number of relatively short scenes that us from the sunshine of Jamaica to the grey drizzle of London (with a short stop in Switzerland for good measure). With the set itself unchanged, each new location is identified by a quick rearrangement of the furniture, with light and sound design from Tim Mascall and David Beckham to help pinpoint where in the world we are. Despite the number of scene changes and an interval, the pace of the production is brisk and doesn’t lose momentum, holding our attention throughout and ending with the Oscars speech that Eletha might well have wished she could make.

Mad as Hell may be our only chance to discover the story of Eletha Finch; she certainly doesn’t get much credit anywhere else for her important role in her husband’s life and career. No doubt Hollywood would have been proud of “allowing” her on to the stage that night in 1977, when really it should have been asking, as Paddy Chayefsky did, why she wasn’t the first choice. Equally, we could look back at Eletha’s story and feel smug at the progress we’ve made since then – or we could use it as inspiration to address all the work still to do.

Mad as Hell is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th February.

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