The provocations and final controversial coup de théâtre in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview divided audiences though few could have been left indifferent to it. Marys Seacole has the same flamboyant theatricality but ends up paler and less potent by comparison, though it has to be commended for its fearlessness and desire to do something different.
Perhaps it is just that desire, overegged, that scuppers its effects. Directed by Fairview’s Nadia Latif, it is based on the life of the 19th-century British-Jamaican nurse and hotelier Mary Seacole. A superstar in her time, she combined western practices with the herbalism she learned from her Caribbean mother. Her adventuring life included volunteering on the frontline of the Crimean war and healing the sick during the cholera epidemic.
She is made gloriously flesh and blood by Kayla Meikle, a magnetic force who speaks in patois (or “patwah” as it is written in the script). Meikle keeps us hanging on her every word as she narrates a story that jumbles up character and chronology on Tom Scutt’s non-naturalistic stage, but does not carry a big enough payoff. The cast as a whole excels, playing multiple parts with deliberately overblown emotions and archness.
We begin in satirical mode, at an NHS hospital, by the bedside of an elderly white woman (Susan Wooldridge), whose middle-class daughter (Olivia Williams) makes demands on two black nurses, while her granddaughter (Esther Smith) throws teenage strops. The curtain lifts to reveal another set, another curtain. Scenes zigzag and splice past with present, from Seacole’s 19th-century hotel in Kingston to a modern American playground and then Crimea.
There is a sense of watching Seacole but also, in her transformations, seeing other Mary Seacoles down the ages, from childminders to NHS nurses, whose work goes unrecognised. The play makes its bigger point about the racial outsourcing of care for the sick, elderly people and children through satire.
There is a rather too flat interplay between patronising white middle-class women and Black carers and the humour between them is sometimes amusing, but too obvious and repeated.
It is when the drama travels to more outlandish set-ups that the humour comes to life: there is a comic training day for nurses that enacts a terrorist attack, and an icy exchange between Florence Nightingale and Seacole (Nightingale’s team refused to take Seacole’s offer of help during the Crimean war) in which Nightingale is in a boned skirt of enormous proportions, behaving with queenly arrogance on the battlefield.
Ominous music by Xana builds a sense of dread with its rumble and thrum of bass, and the comedy threatens to slip into something darker. This darkness manifests fully in act two when we enter the realm of surreal fantasy and horror.
Characters buckle, keen and repeat old lines. The stage looks like a wreckage of its parts, as in Fairview (there is even a plastic chicken that looks suspiciously like a prop from that play). Seacole’s mother (Llewella Gideon) appears as a vision and speaks all the play’s messages about race and the outsourcing of care: “Them need us but them nah want us.”
Like Fairview, this metaphoric burning up of the story and the stage pulls the rug from under our feet. Here, though, it does not seem to be a dismantling of the story for greater purpose but a dramatic meltdown that resembles an experimental psychodrama – bizarre, mystifying, melodrama that we watch rather than feel.
The point about care and economic slavery is a crucial one, but the mother’s diatribe takes in the entire breadth of “white man terror” (from white supremacy to police violence) and it feels like a play speaking aloud all the racial ills of society in one gasping breath, using this character, and its finale, as a mouthpiece.
It also leaves us with a sense that the figure of Mary Seacole is a vehicle used to explore our current-day issues too nakedly rather than a study of a singular life and its forgotten achievements.