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Mary’s Babies by Maud Dromgoole at Jermyn Street Theatre

Mary's Babies - Jermyn Street Theatre - Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding - photo credit - Robert Workman
Mary’s Babies – Jermyn Street Theatre – Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding – photo credit – Robert Workman

There are various checks and balances when it comes to using sperm banks, which are regulated in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. But this, of course, was not always so, and when a clinic was set up by Dr Bertold Wiesner and his wife Mary Barton (from which the play’s title, Mary’s Babies, comes from) in the 1930s, the implications were not – and quite probably could not – have been thought through. When the clinic closed in the 1960s, the patient records were all destroyed. But then at some point, some DNA tests were done, with the results showing that a majority of people conceived at the clinic were fathered by Wiesner.

It is now illegal to do this, in the sense that sperm donors are allowed (in this country, at least) to create up to ten babies. Otherwise, there’s too much of a risk that the two of the progenies may meet in later life and start a family. Moral dubiousness aside, if anything because it is reasonable to assume that the parties in such a situation may not have known that they came from the same seed, there are medical implications, with an increased potential for genetic disorders, physical malformations or intellectual deficits.

All this is not discussed at length in the play, which instead focuses on what would happen if some of Wiesner’s many descendants crossed paths. Two actors, Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens, take on thirty-nine characters between them across thirty-one scenes. Somehow this is done without an interval (even if a press night technical hitch meant a rather refreshing unplanned pause in proceedings), and while there are moments of intensity, there is also time for dramatic pauses. I wouldn’t say that each and every character is altogether distinct from any other – which makes sense, given the common ancestry of many of them.

But the play keeps coming back to certain people, and their significant others. Each scene is introduced by a wall display of names, and the characters that appear in any given scene have their names illuminated. Watching the wall in Scene 25 made me giggle. It’s possibly the quickest of the quick-fire scenes, featuring Sarah, Greta, Linda, Rita, Michael, Suzie, Joseph, Hannah, Harry, Verity, Charlotte, Jack, John, Luke, Lizzie, Milly, Kate, Liberty, Paul, Gertie, Sam, Rachel, Peter, Celia, Kieran, Susan, Eric, Caroline, Emma and Sean.

A note in the programme makes it clear that this is very much a work of fiction “and no characters are based on any real people”. This makes the production rather more enjoyable than if that note hadn’t been included, if only because the humour in the play can get rather dark at times. A couple of scenes could, I think, have been cut altogether without consequence: there’s one with a ventriloquist which I could make neither head nor tail of, and another with ‘Henry’ and ‘Tom’, plummy-accented toffs who bizarrely wish to feed chocolate to chicken – something which, in any event, is not advisable as I understand it.

Scene changes in this production are kept simple, and sometimes occur so suddenly there isn’t even time for a costume change. The setting for each scene is therefore not always immediately obvious, and the play overall feels as though it is written for television rather than theatre, seemingly always and forever chopping and changing between characters and locations. But sometimes less really is more, and perhaps fewer narratives with more depth rather than many narratives that vary between the schematic and the profound. Even so, there’s some strong acting to enjoy amongst the organised chaos of a busy play.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Mary Barton, a pioneer of fertility treatment, thought her husband was perfect. And doesn’t every child deserve the perfect father? So Mary used her husband’s sperm to impregnate up to a thousand women, and then burnt all the records. A thousand resulting children, the ‘Barton Brood’, with no idea about their shared father. Meeting each other. Making friends. Having babies.

Maud Dromgoole’s play is inspired by the true story of Mary Barton and the Barton Brood, researched through surveys and interviews. Provocative, funny, and fascinating, it imagines a series of encounters between these unknowing half-siblings.

By Maud Dromgoole
Starring: Emma Fielding & Katy Stephens
Directed by Tatty Hennessy
Set and costume by Anna Reid
Lighting by Jai Morjaria
Sound by Yvonne Gilbert
Casting by Matilda James
A co-production with Oak Theatre

Mary’s Babies
Wed, 20th March – Sat, 13th April


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