Review: Mary's Babies
Image: Jermyn Street Theatre
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 based on 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.
Maud Dromgoole is a writer whose plays have appeared at the Bunker, the Courtyard Theatre, the Arcola, Southwark Playhouse, and Tristan Bates Theatres.
Tatty Hennessy is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg and director.
All characters in Mary's Babies are fictional.
Since we've just passed the Vernal Equinox, Spring is most definitely in the air and our local wildlife will no doubt be in the frantic business of raising their young.
It might be a fitting time, then, for an airing of this play from Maud Dromgoole, when new life is appearing (or about to appear) all around us.
However, it's not the natural reproductive habits of the animal kingdom that is the focus of attention here.
Rather it's the controlled reproduction of humans that gets put under the dramatic microscope.
To be more precise, it's mostly the results of that activity which this play examines.
Described as "a work of complete fiction" in the author's note in the play text, Mary's Babies is inspired at least by the work of Mary Barton, who ran a fertility clinic from the 1930s to the mid 1960s, helping women conceive 1500 babies by means of artificial insemination.
Without legal or medical regulation at the time, Mary Barton apparently used a small panel of sperm donors (from 'intelligent stock') including her husband Bertold Wiesner.
Emma Fielding (left) and Katy Stephens - photo by Robert Workman
Two fine actors - Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens - deliver over 30 characters in a series of sketches that illuminate various aspects of conception and birth, as well as some of the "disheartening" consequences for offspring born of unknown parentage.
Though Ms Dromgoole declares her work to be "an exercise of imagination", the very first scene (with just one character, Kieran) doesn't feel like it's been concocted entirely from thin air, because Mary Barton is mentioned specifically and Kieran is supposedly one outcome of her work.
But perhaps the pretence here is in the detail and maybe the character is fictional, even if penned from substantial enquiry and anecdotal evidence.
Actually it doesn't matter much anyway since we're not really being asked to scrutinise the work of Mary Barton, but rather to consider the implications of assisted human reproduction.
Rare indeed at this venue, a technical glitch caused by a wayward strip of LED lights, that obviously wanted a bigger share of proceedings than had been allocated it, halted progress for a short time.
Even theatrical adversity, though, can offer inspiration and Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens took the challenge on the chin with good-natured humour, deftly restarting with assured professionality after a short delay as though nothing had happened.
Some of the scenes - like one where two men are trying to create real chocolate eggs by feeding chickens on chocolate - are humorously flippant.
And there are moments of humour throughout, jostling alongside more moving and serious sequences.
The very first scene with Katy Stephens' Kieran giving a eulogy is the most moving of all, and cleverly written too, providing us with some elucidatory facts, yet underlining how lack of facts can undermine someone's emotional security.
Mary's Babies is interesting and watchable, but the format feels a little too sketchy and wide-ranging to provide a wholly satisfying examination of any of the plethora of issues it raises.
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