Just two actresses play an astounding 41 characters in a provoking play by Maud Dromgoole at Jermyn Street Theatre this spring. Mary’s Babies tells the story, loosely based on true events, of how more than 1000 people came to learn that their biological mothers had all been artificially inseminated by the same man. It’s a gripping premise, and the rest of the show doesn’t disappoint.
Despite the huge number of characters, there’s not a single costume change in this show – no mean feat. Katy Stephens gives this show its edge as she bestows each of her 23 characters with a unique persona simply with a slight change of posture and tone of voice. Stephens breathes particular life into Kieran, a man whose world is turned upside down when he realises his true parentage. Determined to find his “real”’ family, he becomes the link connecting all the “sibs” together. Emma Fielding shows the differences in her characters with skilled accent changes, and she creates some really lovable and comic characters with her performance. There are other indicators of character changes however, as the simply set design is cleverly engineered to ensure that the audience doesn’t get lost.
At the heart of this play is the disorientating power of lies, but through this central theme, family is queried and complicated. Varying ideas of kinship converge, not always successful, and Kieran has to learn that his ideas of family values may not match up with those of his new unorthodox family. Mary’s Babies deals with some really complex and troubling ideas: paternity issues are menacingly present, and incest is a huge factor too – where does the incest line lie, in biology or in knowledge of biology?
While the performance I saw has some distracting technical difficulties, the play is cleverly performed with remarkable transitions carried out by a talented duo. Although the subject matter is as heavy as heavy gets, when this play is funny it is really funny. Dromgoole’s written the kind of jokes your mind wanders back to after you’ve left the theatre because they are so genius. Dark and taboo as Mary’s Babies is, the humour makes this show. It has the ability to tap into some of those universal human anxieties but encourages you to deal with them with a joke or two. Leaving with you a message something along the lines of: when life gives you siblings, laugh.
Mary’s Babies is playing Jermyn Street until 13 April 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.