Mary’s Babies – Jermyn St Theatre, London

Writer: Maud Dromgoole

Director: Tatty Hennessy

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Thank god for the snappy set and lighting design here – with 39 named characters and two actors it had the potential to all go a bit 39 Steps. Keeping each speaker separate, identifiable and interesting as the play goes on is a challenge – but by deploying the simple technique of lighting up a name plaque for each speaker, we get over it quickly. With such an engaging story it becomes surprisingly easy to forget the signs, and once in the flow the focus can rest easily on the scale of the story being told in a quick 90 minutes.

This is, in essence, an entertaining and very sensitive handling of a topic that goes straight to the core of our identity. It’s a fictionalised take on the true story of the “Barton Brood”, the 1500 children born of the Barton fertility clinic in the UK between the 1940s and 1960s. Of these, about 600 were the children of the clinic’s founder Bertold Wiesner who donated sperm to help couples conceive. He and his wife, Mary Barton, encouraged secrecy with any children born from their clinic so it took many years for the full number of his progeny to be realised. Mary’s Babies loosely follows one of those ‘children’ Kieran as he looks to find his brothers and sisters at age 44. The emotional weight comes from the emphasis on the impact the discovery of another sibling (or 600) when one has spent a happy 40-60 years with a fixed idea of family and lineage.

The crash of instability this sort of revelation brings is felt in the pit of our stomach’s early on when the possibility that our parents may not be our parents is highlighted by “Kieran” telling us how many donor babies out there are still undiscovered, “Maybe even one of you.” It’s a simple trick, but effective and sets the mood for a session of discovery and exploration of what happens when we question the notion of a ‘family’.

Some characters are great to watch, some much less so. Keiran himself as the fulcrum of the piece is difficult to feel any empathy for, and so are some of the other male characters like Bret. Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens do some cracking work with the female characters in general though – especially with Ethel and Gracie, a couple who are (alongside one called Caroline) the real stars of the show. Maud Dromgoole’s writing shifts from slightly try-hard to beautifully economical – with Rita’s story of seduction a lovely example.

Jai Morjaria and Anna Reid are responsible for lighting and set design respectively – creating a versatile space that highlights the different characters, and as mentioned, helps them form. The story feels huge and this tight production leaves a lot of questions unexplored and themes unanswered. So many characters competing for mental space leaves no one with quite enough room. It’s engaging, and entertaining for sure, but not entirely satisfying.

Runs until 13 April 2019 | Image: Robert Workman

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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