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Review: Mary/Mary at Flow Studios

Review by Giddy Pillai

 

If you’re a theatre lover and you’ve never had the experience of watching a development reading of a new work before, I highly recommend you give it a go. Readings strip a work back to its most essential elements. Typically the actors stand in a row and speak their lines in turn, often with scripts in hand. Sets and costumes are usually minimal or non-existent, and there is little to no staging, though sometimes stage directions may be read out to provide a sense of the action. When all the bells and whistles of a full production are taken away, there’s nothing to focus on as an audience member other than the words and the actors delivering them. It’s a wonderfully intimate experience, and one that I think allows you to see straight through to the heart of a work.

 

It was an absolute privilege to be part of the audience for the second development reading of Mary/Mary, a gorgeous new musical about novelist Mary Shelley and her mother, the influential philosopher and activist Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, these two women never had the chance to know each other – Mary Shelley’s life began just as her mother’s ended – but their stories have many parallels. Both were innovators who broke the mould in enormously influential ways – Shelley as the originator of science fiction, and Wollstonecraft as the mother of first wave feminism. Both were driven by the irrepressible desire to think and create, and struggled to reconcile this with the demands of motherhood. Both were caring parents who wanted the best for their children, but who also craved independence. Both lived unconventional lives for the time, unwilling to squeeze themselves within the box that society had made for women.

 

Mary/Mary is the brainchild of multi-hyphenate powerhouse Kate Knott. Knott tells the stories of these two remarkable women using a clever narrative format. Taking the moment of Shelley’s birth and Wollstonecraft’s death as its starting point, the musical moves forward through Shelley’s life and backwards through Wollstonecraft’s, juxtaposing key events that mirror or contrast each other. The script is rich with detail and grounded in deep research, and this lends Mary/Mary a real sense of truth. Knott and co-writers Jonathan Kerr and Irene Nicola make the intelligent creative choice to prioritise historical accuracy, but also tell the story using modern language rather than remaining bound by the language of the 17-1800s. This, combined with skilful, empathetic writing, helps to make the show relatable to a wide audience. Anyone who’s tried to carve out room for a creative practice alongside other pressures, who has struggled to balance independence with parenthood, or who has felt a burning desire to define their own identity in a world that works in stereotypes and rigid expectations is likely to see themselves in one or more of the characters here.

 

Mary/Mary is emotionally compelling, hilarious, heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure. Even at this developmental stage, when decisions are still being made about what to keep and what to cut, this is a show made up of good moments and even better moments. It’s jam-packed with well-crafted lyrics, beautiful melodies and rich characters. From start to end it sparkles with quality.

 

Knott is backed up by an incredible team of performers. Elizabeth Ellis and Kate Fuller infuse the titular characters with depth, heart and a ton of personality. Ellis is warm, cheeky and irrepressible as Mary Wollstonecraft. Fuller is sincere, perceptive and headstrong as Mary Shelley. An array of supporting characters are also brought to life with nuance. Alex Williams is gentle and cautious as Shelley’s father and Wollstonecraft’s husband William Godwin – an anarchist and political activist who lays low to protect his daughters. Caitlin Addinell draws out both the selfishness and the genuine love in romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who elopes with (and ultimately marries) a teenage Mary Shelley. Maddie Stokes is hilarious and heartbreaking as Shelley’s stepsister Claire, who, in love with Percy and jealous of Mary, makes the strange decision to elope along with the couple. Irene Nicola – who also doubles as musical director, co-writer, and dramaturg – is an absolute force of nature as flamboyant narcissist Lord Byron. Knott herself paints a sensitive portrait of Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate daughter Fanny Imlay, who life has handed a very short straw. The cast is beautifully accompanied by nationally renowned pianist Er-Chih Li. All of the performers feel incredibly connected and in sync, and I’m amazed to learn that prior to the matinee show I watched they hadn’t had a chance to have a full rehearsal with everyone present. It was clear as a viewer that everyone involved believes in this show, and that made for a very special atmosphere.

 

After the show, audience members were invited to stay on for an in-person feedback session. I stuck around for this and found it fascinating to learn about the thought processes that had gone into building the show, and to hear what others in the audience thought. It felt special to be able to meet the creative team, share thoughts and play a small role in contributing to a piece of theatre that I am confident has a bright future ahead of it. Mary/Mary is one of the most exciting new works I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing, and I truly believe it has all the necessary ingredients to shine brightly on the biggest of stages. I’ll be keeping my eyes eagerly peeled for its next development showing.


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