A review by Dominic Maxwell for The Times of London.
Is this just your regular informative bioplay? It scarcely seems possible from Jackie Sibblies Drury, the American playwright who mixed the playful with the pointed to Pulitzer prizewinning effect in her previous play, Fairview, a hit pre-pandemic at the Young Vic. Yet here stands Kayla Meikle as the 19th-century Scottish-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, alone on stage in front of the green canvas backdrop of Tom Scutt’s elegant design, running down the key facts of her history, including joining Florence Nightingale (uninvited) to care for the wounded in the Crimean War. Later on, sure enough, we see disembodied British soldiers on a smoky battlefield and Nightingale herself, played with Julie Andrews vim and vigour by Olivia Williams.
Drury rarely sticks with the expected for long, though. The title is no typo: the famous Mary morphs into several modern-day caregivers. Seacole’s black outfit is removed to reveal the blue dress of an NHS nurse below. Talk of cholera in 1850 blends into a scene in which Mary looks after a dying white woman whose fractious middle-class family undoubtedly love her, but aren’t the ones cleaning the shit from her bedclothes.
Mary will become a New York nanny, too, mutely withstanding a frazzled white mum who enthuses about the vegan ackee she had on holiday in Montego Bay. Or a seen-it-all-before nurse leading an NHS training-day role-play session.
This kaleidoscopic play is by turns abstruse, amusing, irked, forgiving. Mother-daughter relationships dominate, but it’s only when the lurking ghost of Mary’s disapproving mother (Llewella Gideon) breaks her silence that the show’s ideas about the underestimated role of the black caregiver in white society become overt.
Shame, here, that Drury overplays her hand by getting characters to reprise key lines as if this were the finale of some sort of psychedelic concept album. The evening goes from being one step ahead of its audience to labouring its point. That aside, there is so much to like here, not least a staggeringly good central turn from Meikle, who lends Mary an unforced watchfulness, grace and grit. It’s a loving performance but never a sentimental one. And though Mary has to have the patience of a saint in all her guises, Drury offers sharp character sketches of women who are neither sanctified nor hopeless sinners.
Not everything in Nadia Latif’s elegant, acerbic, beautifully acted production quite joins up. Is its strange shape, led by theme rather than narrative, a tribute to a woman who wouldn’t be contained by the conventional ways of thinking of her age? It feels as if Drury is a draft away from finding the perfect way to make Seacole’s story both literal and metaphorical in the way she wants to, but this is an ambitious evening that lingers in the memory even so.
To June 4, donmarwarehouse.com