The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, Rosemary Branch Theatre

I had never heard of Mary Seacole until I began working in UK schools, several years after my arrival to the UK. What a woman!  No wonder her entrepreneurial, caring Victorian spirit is on the National Curriculum and she has been the subject of several plays, including Rosemary Branch co-artistic director Cleo Sylvestre’s one-woman show, The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole. With a simple narrative structure, Sylvestre’s piece focuses on characterisation and biography. It is well performed, though some adjustments to the script and tech could make this an even better solo show.

We are never told who we are, but Seacole treats us like a society or club she has come to lecture about her life.  She speaks in the past tense shortly after her return from the Crimea; we hear her life story starting with her childhood in Jamaica, helping her mother run their Hotel, Blundell Hall and learnt about her “remedies” from foraging. Continuing onto her London, Central America and finally The Crimean War, Sylvestre endows her with a confident, charismatic warmth – no wonder she was so popular with soldiers and civilians alike. Her performance peaks when recalling her mother first teachings her about plants, and later memories of battlefields heaving with wounded soldiers – her “boys.” These are lovely moments to witness, but some of the more mundane content is delivered on autopilot.

Structurally, the script is a simple, linear narrative. This would be an excellent piece to tour to primary schools, as it’s easy to follow and has plenty of captivating anecdotes. The content is interesting enough to hold an adult audience’s attention for nearly an hour, but it would be a refreshing experiment to see this piece as episodic, with more lighting and sound than is presently used to highlight pivotal moments. This is not a new show, and solo performance has evolved since its inception. Sylvestre’s imagery-laden work would suit regularly used bigger projections, detailed soundscapes stronger lighting changes. Even though this is an important story, it is not an innovative production, but it certainly has the potential to be.

Cleo Sylvestre’s performance is the highlight of The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, but this long-running solo performance needs some revisiting to give it an extra burst of life worthy of such a vibrant character.

Running at The Rosemary Branch, 9-11 April.

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