There’s a pretty wild true story as the inspiration for Maud Dromgoole’s play. Mary Barton, a medical missionary, founds a fertility clinic in London in the 1940s. She uses her husband as the donor for two thirds of the sperm provided. After twenty years, Bertold Weisner has become the biological and legally anonymous father to around six hundred children. I like to think that he also has quite a sore arm.
Mary’s Babies imagines those children now, what they might be up to, and the issues that arise when they find out they’ve got five hundred and ninety-nine siblings.
Actors Rhiannon Neads and Deli Segal (both of them charming and funny from the get-go) share seven characters between them. In short scenes, we are introduced to a selection of the ‘Barton Brood’, who of course vary nicely in their class, career, sexuality and age. There’s a relationship that might be incestuous, a partner who feels they’re being abandoned for the sibling-relationship equivalent of a ready meal (no effort put in, probably unhealthy) and a woman who just can’t believe the choice of gender her new sister likes to do sex with.
Between scenes, the actors change in and out of costumes hung at the back of the stage. This is a bit fiddly and it happens again and again. I begin to feel the same acute emotional distress caused by trying to stream a video that keeps on buffering. Usually there comes a point when I realise I’m spending more time waiting for the video to load than I am watching it, so I do something else for a bit. Can’t do that in the theatre.
Even with the changes of costume, the characters all seem a bit similar. I charitably attribute this to a comment on nature over nurture, but I feel deep down that the playwright hasn’t succeeded in disguising her own voice. Sometimes exposition that informs us of the factual events of the brood’s conception doesn’t sit right in the characters’ mouths. The play becomes a maths test answer, rigorously demonstrating its working.
I enjoy the production more as it takes on some of the qualities that make soap operas so compulsive. A cast of characters whose stories and histories intertwine and build upon one another. An embracement of ridiculous twists and melodrama. A focus on family. I wonder whether soaps use the ‘surprise! new family member you didn’t know about’ trope so often because we can’t help but find meaning in our blood relations, can’t help but think their existence impacts our own in some way, even if we’ve never met them.
One character is confronted about her obsession with knowing her siblings. ‘Why is it important?’ she’s asked. The reply is simply because ‘It is.’ That pull of blood is inexplicable and felt deeply. I want this play, in its first ever outing on the night I watch it, to find that depth.
Mary’s Babies was on at Vault Festival 2018.