While the play is certainly topical, it feels very disorientating – particularly when the story of Mary Seacole seems to get lost.
What I was expecting from Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play highlighting the story of pioneering Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was a straightforward biopic with her story being recounted maybe from the present day, with characters highlighting what she went through can still be felt down the generations. What we get is a very muddled piece of drama that while effective in drawing out comparisons that span across generations with in healthcare from the 19th century to the present day, the way in which it time travels both in the production and play feels very confusing and disjointed structurally.
Mary Seacole’s career included setting up a hotel for the sick before travelling to the Crimea to help wounded soldiers. This in itself is a fascinating premise for the play and yet, despite some engaging moments during the historically set scenes (featuring appearances from Florence Nightingale no less) – very little is made of her story. What the play’s real focus and concern is capturing the ways in which Mary Seacole’s as a black woman working in healthcare can be still seen to this day- highlighted by scenes including a hospital scene in which a mother berates the nurse for not taking care of her elderly mother properly, while squabbling with her daughter. There are moments of humour to be found in the play (the scene in which nurses are training is particularly amusing), the play seems to struggle to really convey what it is trying to say.
Visually, it is impressive and the way in which Tom Scutt’s imaginative designs transports the audience from the past to the present is cleverly done and Jessica Hung Hang Yun’s lighting design enhances the drama nicely – but both these elements also reveal just how disjointed the play really is. Nadia Latif’s production really attempts to make Drury’s play coherent but despite valiant attempts is difficult to get on board with.
It is a real shame as the cast are all excellent – particularly as they are constantly switching characters. At the centre of it all Kayla Meikle gives a fully charismatic performance, who really brings Mary’s story (when it is shown) to life – her opening monologue is particularly memorable, delivered in a matter of fact way that draws the audience in. All of the other cast give great and heartfelt performances that are touching in different ways – no matter how long their appearance in a scene.
All in all, while there are some worthy aspects to this production that work – it also highlights the flaws of the play structurally. While it is clever in a sense to use Mary Seacole’s experiences to examine contemporary issues – I left still wanting to find out more about Mary Seacole herself.
By Emma Clarendon
Marys Seacole continues to play at the Donmar Warehouse until the 4th June.