I’ve never, to the best of my recollection, ever had a disappointing experience at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, I am pleased to report, continues this tradition.
This is a show that very much befits its title, with Cleo Sylvestre as Mary Seacole breaking the fourth wall before she had even made it to the stage proper, and maintaining a most absorbing and engrossing performance throughout.
I will admit to not being fully conversant with Seacole’s contribution to healthcare; the history of that era as it was taught in my school days centred on Florence Nightingale, with only a sentence or two added in about Mary Seacole, acknowledging, albeit fleetingly, that she contributed to alleviating the suffering of soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. While the sheer horror of what she encountered there is wonderfully explored in this short but enthralling show, the other details of her life before she arrived at the frontline were equally fascinating.
There are, slightly unexpectedly for me, moments of humour, particularly when recalling childhood memories and later encounters with servicemen who she had previously assisted some years before.
Her one direct encounter with Nightingale is presented here as cordial at best – Nightingale’s staff were apparently far more delighted to have Mary Seacole in their presence than Nightingale herself. I’m not sure I’m fully convinced that Nightingale was as cold as all that. While it is well documented that Nightingale refused Seacole’s assistance more than once, surely she would have chosen not to receive Seacole at all if she disliked her so much?
Either way, it’s clear that this production is very carefully researched, with vivid attention to detail, which even extended to what specific remedies were believed by Seacole to be most effective for her patients. I am, of course, not in a position to verify whether they had much benefit (opinion amongst historians and physicians is divided on this point), suffice to say I note with interest that the sort of medication Seacole preferred still has its followers and supporters to this day.
There’s ample opportunity, too, for Sylvestre’s Seacole to display the sort of thing Seacole liked to wear: her focus and attention may well have been largely on alleviating the pain of others, but this didn’t preclude her from dressing to impress. Elsewhere, the issue of race simply couldn’t be avoided, such were the prevailing attitudes in society at the time, and this was handled in the show sensitively and without sentimentality.
With relatively little set and props, it falls to the strong script and Sylvestre’s storytelling and physicality to really bring events to life. They do so triumphantly. I rarely get emotional at the theatre (or anywhere else, for that matter) but even I struggled to hold back tears at the description of the relentless amount of death and destruction as the Crimea War became increasingly intense. This is such a profound, glorious and captivating performance, and I have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending it. A magnificent production, superbly acted and an evening that will stay in my memory for a very long time.
Review by Chris Omaweng
THE MARVELLOUS ADVENTURES OF MARY SEACOLE
written and performed by Cleo Sylvestre
As part of The Rosemary Branch’s 20th anniversary, Joint Artistic Director, Cleo Sylvestre, returns with her acclaimed hour long, one woman show based on the autobiography of Mary Seacole.
Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish father and Creole mother, her extraordinary life as a herbalist and doctress took her to disease ridden regions and war torn battlefields all over the world where she was a fine example of triumph over adversity.
Cleo is proud to be an Ambassador for the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal and has performed her show for many fundraising events in numerous venues including the House of Lords and London City Hall. She is delighted that later this year Mary Seacole will become the first black woman to have a statue erected in England in honour of her life and achievements.
9th to 11th March 2016
Rosemary Branch Theatre
2 Shepperton Rd, London N1 3DT