Jermyn Street Theatre in co-production with Oak Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre
Mary Barton was an obstetrician who, during the 1940s, established a private fertility clinic based in her consulting room which was one of the first to offer donor insemination. Her husband Bertold Wiesner found the donors (selected to match race, colouring and stature and chosen from “intelligent stock”). Records of donors were destroyed but, since DNA testing became available, the evidence suggests Bertold’s own sperm may have been used to inseminate up to 1,000 women and only a very small number of other donors were used.
That is the background to Mary’s Babies and what inspired it, but Maud Dromgoole’s play is not about the clinic, its methods or its ethics but about the children who resulted from it and the effect upon them of discovering they were part of what became known as “The Barton Brood”. Though it draws partly on research and interviews, it is not documentary but fiction. Not even one of the 39 named individuals in it is a real person.
In its 31 short scenes, the play concentrates on a dozen individuals, some only momentarily but most reappearing, and all the roles, irrespective of gender, are shared between just two actresses who at the end of each scene morph into the characters in the next one.
This happens very smoothly with an overlapping action or link in the dialogue with the current characters identified by the illumination of a selection of names posted on the back of Anna Reid’s simple, abstract setting.
“It’s 2007," is the play’s first line, beginning a long, explanatory introduction given by a man called Kieran (Katy Stephens), but there is little indication of time or place elsewhere. Keiran has an intriguing story: a twin, fathered by Bertold’s sperm, his mother’s husband accepted his sister but rejected him and he was reared by their maid Karen as her own son.
Karen has just died; Keiran’s real mother was already dead. The father of Gracie, one of his many semi-siblings, is dying; Gracie’s lesbian partner is thinking of herself having a baby by donor insemination. One semi-sibling had a one-off encounter in a barn that she remembers with pleasure that produced an illegitimate baby. Another couple are lovers who discover they are siblings when the woman is already pregnant.
Birth and death, the possibilities of insemination, the genetic risks if so many unbeknown siblings are created, feelings towards parents by nature or nurture: these are all touched on, sometimes amusingly, but it is all rather a muddle.
The labels to identify characters aren’t really enough to sort out the confusion of the same actor suddenly taking on a new role, especially when there is no change in appearance or indication of gender, though an accent may show it is the same character back again. I did not realise that in several appearances with different people, Emma Fielding was playing a hospital nurse called Caroline who is both herself a Barton baby and a medical contact for others. Vital information for comprehension is often provided in a single word delivered in rapid dialogue with no reinforcement.
Difficult though this makes it to see how scenes continue a particular strand of the story, the performances from Fielding and Stephens keep the moment always interesting. The problems seem to lie with the script’s complexity rather than Tatty Hennessy’s direction, though perhaps (despite the interruption by technical problems on press night) it runs just a little too smoothly, those clever ways of facilitation scene change adding to rather than clarifying confusion.