Life & Culture

Marys Seacole theatre review: 'Promising themes are subsumed by a dog’s dinner of a shouty final act.'

A pioneer nurse meets a noisy end


Donmar Warehouse | ★★★✩✩

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play is as infuriating as her Pulitzer-winning Fairview was provocative. Where Fairview challenged white audiences to reassess their assumptions about black people and the way they are represented on stage, this biographical play is also rooted in racial politics and rehabilitates the reputation the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole.
A talented nurse, she offered to help Florence Nightingale care for the British army in Crimea during the 1850s war but was repeatedly turned down despite the obvious need for her presence. As seen in Nadia Latif’s at first delightfully unpredictable production, Nightingale’s response was brimful of polite disdain which can most easily be put down as an example of 19th century racism in the caring professions.
The play cleverly links that era and today’s with transformations of character and transitions of period. One minute the excellent and formidable Kayla Meikle’s Mary is presenting a lecture on her life while dressed in formal 19th century attire, the next she is a 21st century nurse dressed in NHS blue caring for a dying elderly white woman attached to a monitor (thus the “Marys” of the title).
It is a terrific scene in which the conversation between Mary and her young care assistant Mamie (an outstanding Déja J Bowens) who is also from Jamaica reveal different world views as they clean up their patient who has soiled herself.
We are then vaulted back to Mary’s Jamaican 19th century hotel-cum-hospital where she and her staff care for upper class white women with a weak constitution. This toggling between two centuries makes for a gripping first hour of this production of 90 uninterrupted minutes. However, after Mary arrives in Crimea there are signs Drury doesn’t know where to take her play next. Bowens’s return as a 19th century version of her 21st century nurse, in which she describes the rules under which she must work when bathing white patients —no skin-on-skin or eye contact — makes vivid the prejudice that can underpin the carer patient relationship. But the encounter between our heroine and frosty Nightingale, (played by Olivia Williams) is frustratingly under explored.
But all these promising themes are subsumed by a dog’s dinner of a shouty final act. It combines the chaos of war with the ghost of Mary’s neglectful mother (Llewella Gideon) who glides through the action but whose presence is a distraction. This cacophonous climax gets louder as the play has less to say. Or perhaps that should be because the play has less to say.

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