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MARYS SEACOLE at the Donmar Warehouse

I am Mary Seacole!” everyone on stage shouts, in a sort of “I’m Spartacus!” moment. The play’s title doesn’t have a typographical error after all. There’s a broadly similar sense of solidarity and defiance between the women as there is between members of the slave army in the 1960 movie. But that is about all there is in common: here, there’s a rather convoluted narrative, in which, at face value, Seacole (Kayla Meikle) is at one moment doing her thing, administering care, but sometimes this happens in the National Health Service (established in 1948 – Seacole died in 1881).

Kayla Meikle in Marys Seacole. Photograph: Marc Brenner
Kayla Meikle in Marys Seacole. Photograph: Marc Brenner.

If that isn’t confusing enough, in another scene Seacole also has a smartphone that runs out of battery because she became engrossed in a game of World of Warcraft (she was off-duty: it’s not like that Member of Parliament who was playing Candy Crush Saga during a Commons committee meeting in 2014). The very same person then has a feisty conversation with Florence Nightingale, who had (as this production would have it) personally rejected Seacole’s offers to help with the medical relief effort during the Crimean War (1853-1856).

I’m still not entirely sure what this exactly is trying to get across to its audiences. There are some unsubtle comparisons made between the Crimean War of Seacole’s day and a current (at the time of writing) Russian military conflict, while Duppy Mary (Llewella Gideon) embarks on a cogent argument setting out reasons why there is no point in anyone coming from the Caribbean to Britain: everything that shows like Small Island portray, and then some, make for a bleak existence. In Jamaica, she says, they have tourists, not terrorists. The experiences of the Windrush generation are laid bare, and the overarching theme of miscellaneous scenes seems to be that black women today, and going back at least as far as Seacole, have gone above and beyond in caring for other people, and are and have been not only underappreciated, but actively abused.

But the play takes the scenic route to make this point, notably through the story of Merry (Susan Wooldridge), an older patient in a soulless hospital ward, visited by her daughter May (Olivia Williams) and her granddaughter Miriam (Esther Smith). May and Miriam quarrel in the way in which a mother does with her teenage daughter, and after some highly uninteresting dialogue about the drudgery of work and the contents of a photo album. Later, in what I assume was a local park, women strike up a conversation about the lack of value for money certain mobile telephone networks provide. It’s imaginative, I’ll give it that much, and a disorienting effect reaches its crescendo when the other five on-stage characters are talking at Seacole at the same time.

The production eventually melts into melodrama, becoming so overemotional that any sense of poignancy gained earlier is wiped out. Seacole is, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as a narcissistic character, lapping up the praise of others while ordering others around, particularly Mamie (Déja J. Bowens), who must multitask, and incur Seacole’s wrath for the most negligible errors. This rounded portrayal is different from the borderline adulation for Seacole found elsewhere.

The repetition of phrases and lines is the stuff of chart music. At the theatre, the words ‘sledgehammer’ and ‘nut’ come to mind. It has a good cast, with Meikle’s performance as the central character being quite magnetic. But there were a couple of moments when I had no idea what was going on, and a few more moments when I did, but couldn’t quite see how what I was witnessing tied in with other aspects of a very convoluted narrative.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Mary Seacole was the pioneering Jamaican nurse who bravely voyaged to heal soldiers in the Crimean War. She was a traveller, a hotelier and a businesswoman. She was the most impressive woman you’ve ever met.

Putting the concept of a biopic through a kaleidoscope, MARYS SEACOLE is a dazzling exploration across oceans and eras of what it means to be a woman who is paid to care, and how, ultimately, no one is in charge of their own story.

Nadia Latif directs Déja J. Bowens (Mamie), Llewella Gideon (Duppy Mary), Kayla Meikle (Mary), Esther Smith (Miriam), Olivia Williams (May), and Susan Wooldridge (Merry).

41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London WC2H 9LX
15 April – 4 June 2022
Press Night: Thursday 21 April 2022

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