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Mary’s Babies review – Jermyn Street Theatre

Mary’s Babies is inspired by the story of fertility treatment pioneers Mary Barton and her husband Bertold Wiesner. Between the 1930s and 1960s they used Bertold’s sperm to inseminate up to 1,000 women before destroying the records.

Set in 2007, Maud Dromgoole’s play imagines a set of encounters between some of those grown-up children as they discover that they have hundreds of half-siblings.

Dromgoole doesn’t make things easy for the audience. Over 90 minutes we are presented with 39 characters played by two actors. Some scenes are so short they are over before you’ve worked out who’s speaking. It helps to have their names lit up in picture frames on the wall.

Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens brilliantly bring these diverse personalities to life.

I particularly liked Kieran, the nervous but big-hearted “little dweeb” who spearheads the efforts to get “Barton’s Brood” together. Stephens plays him so well that his presence acts as a helpful anchor amid the multifarious encounters.

Another standout is Fielding’s straight-talking Registrar who shares a laugh-out-loud scene about birth certificates with Bret, a character who wouldn’t be out of place in EastEnders.

Mary’s Babies - Maud Dromgoole - Jermyn Street Theatre - 20th March 2019Director - Tatty Hennessy Designer - Anna Reid Lighting Designer - Jai Morjaria Cast - Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens
Katy Stephens as Bret (photo: Robert Workman)

Not all of it works. I was baffled by a somewhat surreal scene with a ventriloquist in a hospital car park.

But the writing is whip-smart. It brims with poetry, wordplay and passages that prompt tears.

This is my second Maud Dromgoole play in a month. Here’s my review of 3 Billion Seconds.

I look forward to seeing what she conceives next.

Mary’s Babies is at Jermyn Street Theatre in London until 13 April.

Gaslight review – The Mill at Sonning

The term “gaslighting” – a form of psychological abuse that makes the victim question their own sanity – has been much written about and discussed in recent years.

It gets its name from this 1938 stage play by Patrick Hamilton. Set in 1880, the story takes place in the London home of the apparently respectable Mr Jack Manningham (Damien Matthews) and his wife Bella (Charlotte Brimble).

Manningham’s manipulative behaviour – and his flirtatious relationship with Nancy the maid (Rhiannon Handy, excellent) – are evident in the first few minutes, setting the audience immediately on edge.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Matthews and Brimble are both superb in their roles as the domineering husband and terrified wife, as is David Acton as Rough – a former detective who turns up out of the blue investigating a cold murder case. Under Robin Herford’s tight direction, the cast really succeed in turning up the tension.

The Mill at Sonning’s intimate stage is a perfect fit for this Victorian-set thriller. Its themes around power within relationships and mental health resonate strongly today. I found myself thoroughly sucked in.

Gaslight is at The Mill at Sonning until 13 April

All About Eve, or All About Screens

This isn’t a review as such, but some thoughts on All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, at the Noel Coward Theatre.

It took me a while to see this, having been confined to my sick bed when it opened.

While Anderson well deserves her Olivier Awards nomination for best actress, I’m not surprised that Ivo van Hove’s production doesn’t appear in the best new play or director categories.

I came away from this disappointed in what seemed to me to be the overuse of video screens.

Yes, Gillian Anderson has a face you could look at all day – so it’s not hard to see why van Hove is keen to show her projected large from the POV of her dressing room mirror.

But is it really such a bold artistic move to screen large chunks of the action as they take place in cramped spaces out of view?

I saw this from the Grand Circle (where else?) and my lasting memory is of watching several minutes of this play via two fairly standard TV screens suspended high above the stage.

Some of it – including a brilliant sequence where Anderson’s Margo Channing visibly ages in her mirror – is pre-recorded.

If I wanted to stay at home and watch TV… yadda yadda yadda.

A brilliant story, irritatingly told.

The Lady Vanishes review – Richmond Theatre

“I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know how it ends,” said the man behind me as the lights went down after the interval for this stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1938 film.

In truth it doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the Hitchcock version or not. This adaptation, directed by Roy Marsden, is largely faithful to the original except it dumps the early hotel scenes and instead introduces the characters on the impressive railway station set that opens the play.

The story revolves around the disappearance of a tweed-wearing governess Miss Froy (Juliet Mills) during an eventful train journey from Austria to Switzerland just before WW2.

A young woman Iris (Lorna Fitzgerald) joins forces with Max (Matt Barber) to solve the mystery of why none of their fellow passengers remember seeing Miss Froy. Along the way they meet Nazis, a brain surgeon, a magician, a couple having an extra-marital affair and a pair of cricket-obsessed Englishmen.

Basically, it’s got all the ingredients of a great farce – and that’s partly the problem. This stage version often feels like a comedy, not an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

It begins with creaky old jokes about foreign accents which would be more at home in ‘Allo ‘Allo – while later on people are getting shot dead right in front of our eyes.

The cast is great. Juliet Mills is a pleasure to watch, and the cricket-loving Charters (Robert Duncan) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon) make the most of having all the best lines.

The train carriage scenes are superbly realised, with almost all the action taking place between private compartments, the dining car and the luggage wagon. (Great work by designer Morgan Large.)

Like a trip on a steam train, this is an old-fashioned and entertaining theatrical ride.

The Lady Vanishes is at Richmond Theatre until 16 March and then touring.

3 Billion Seconds – The Vaults

The next stop for this theatre blog takes me underground to a cavernous theatre space beneath Waterloo Station.

The 3 Billion Seconds in the title of Maud Dromgoole’s wonderfully dark but funny play refer to the estimated lifespan of a baby born in the present day.

“We are a plague on Earth!” population activists Daisy (Rhiannon Neads) and Michael (Tayla Kovacevic Ebong) inform us in the opening line, as trains rumble ominously overhead.

Over the next hour we become intimately acquainted with this likeable (and occasionally irritating) couple who spout copious stats about how humans are wrecking the planet and go into great detail about growing their own veg.

What they don’t want is a baby to make things worse for the world. So you can guess what happens when Daisy gets pregnant.

Actually, you can’t. Because what’s brilliant about Dromgoole’s play is how cleverly she moves the story in a direction you least expect. No spoilers – but it involves a pie chart.

Neads and Ebong are impressive as the oddball pair in this two-hander, which also requires them to slip in and out of other characters and convey a wide range of emotions.

Oh, there’s also an excellent vasectomy joke.

I’ll be seeing Dromgoole’s Mary’s Babies at Jermyn Street Theatre later this month. Can’t wait.

3 Billion Seconds is on at the Vault Festival until 10 March.

Alys, Always – Bridge Theatre

“You’re not famous. I looked you up – you don’t exist.”

Based on the 2012 novel by Harriet Lane, Alys, Always is the story of a young woman’s journey from “dogsbody” to somebody.

Joanne Froggatt is Frances, an office junior on the books section of a Sunday newspaper, whose life changes when she comes across a road accident involving the wife – the titular Alys – of famous writer Laurence Kyte (Robert Glenister).

Invited to meet the Kyte family, Frances finds herself drawn into in a world of money and status – one which she’s unwilling to leave.

Lucinda Coxon’s stage adaptation expertly weaves plenty of laughs into the play’s tense fabric. Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, there’s never a dull scene. The car crash at the start is cleverly realised through narration, back projection and superb sound design.

Froggatt is perfectly cast as the sweet-faced but scheming journalist. She conveys volumes with just the tiniest expressions. It’s fascinating to watch how her friendship with Alys’s grown-up daughter Polly (Leah Gayer) turns into something more psychologically complex. (It’s Polly who says to Frances the line quoted at the start of this review.)

High-brow theatre it’s not (despite the live cellist), but anyone who enjoys their thrillers read by the pool or watched on prime-time TV should consider giving this a go.

Alys, Always is at the Bridge Theatre until 30 March