Mary’s Babies, Jermyn Street Theatre – Review

Who are you? The sum of your experiences, or more perhaps? What if you didn’t know who your mother and father was? How would that change you as a person? Written by Maud Dromgoole and directed by Tatty Hennessey, Mary’s Babies looks at the ethical considerations of intrauterine insemination en masse, as well as its emotional cost. But first, some background history…

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
L-R: Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding / © Robert Workman

Back in the 1930s, fertility treatment pioneer Mary Barton helped childless couples (as a result of male infertility) by offering artificial insemination, using sperm from ‘screened’ donors. In practise, there were only two donors, with one man fathering 100 children and Barton’s own husband, Bertold Wiesner, fathering 1,000 children. Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy and records were destroyed. However, in subsequent decades, breakthroughs into the hereditary nature of DNA opened the door for family members to be traced. Suddenly, ‘Pandora’s Box’ was open and what was kept secret before the Second World War would find itself under scrutiny in the 1960s…

Playing the numerous members of the ‘Barton Brood’ and their respective partners, Emma Fielding and Katy Stephen bring to life the emotional upheavals that such a quest brings to a relationship. At ‘ground zero’ is ‘Kieran’, who is the first ‘sibling’ the other men and women meet. However, most of the play is seen through the eyes of the people he contacts and the effect of the news that he brings.

Mary’s Babies - Maud Dromgoole - Jermyn Street Theatre - 20th March 2019	 Director - Tatty Hennessy Designer - Anna Reid Lighting Designer - Jai Morjaria Cast - Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens

To keep tabs on who is playing what in any given moment, the wall behind the actors has an assortment of names within ‘frames’. When a specific pair are on stage, the names are rotated to the correct pair and illuminated. What they all have in common is that for the ‘sibling’, the ‘knowledge’ of their parentage brings irrevocable changes to their self-perception.

One of the most important threads in the play is what transpires between Ethel and Grace, a same-sex couple who are weighing the pros and cons of having a child. In contrast there’s Caroline and Bret. Caroline is very much pregnant, but the insights Bret has regarding himself and the bigger picture makes him think twice about the soundness of parenthood…

Mary’s Babies - Maud Dromgoole - Jermyn Street Theatre - 20th March 2019	 Director - Tatty Hennessy Designer - Anna Reid Lighting Designer - Jai Morjaria Cast - Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens

The play has its moments of mirth, but they always spring organically out of the ‘awkwardness’ of talking about ‘donor parentage’. On the flip side, the play isn’t afraid to broach the messy ramfications of so many of ‘Barton’s Brood’ within a confined genepool.

While the ‘conception’ of the characters is a big part of the initial set-up, in many ways it’s just a catalyst for the deeper questions that the characters ask about their own lives life, death and everything else in between. The play also plays devil’s advocate and asks whether ‘knowing’ really does bring closure or self-awareness…

© Michael Davis 2019

Mary’s Babies runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 13th April

https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/marys-babies/

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