Marys Seacole review: muddled drama takes too long to make its point

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Kayla Meikle in Marys Seacole  (Marc Brenner)
Kayla Meikle in Marys Seacole (Marc Brenner)

Mary Seacole was a courageous Jamaican nurse who not enough people have heard of. Born in Kingston, she ran a successful hotel caring for the sick, before travelling to nurse the British soldiers during the Crimean War. It’s such a shame that Mary Seacole’s little-known story competes for attention in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s muddled time-travelling drama.

You would be wrong to assume, given the title of the play, that this is a biopic solely focused on Mary Seacole’s life. Rather, Sibblies Drury is more concerned with drawing out the similarities between the healthcare landscapes in the 19th century, when Seacole lived, and the modern-day.

The premise sounds promising enough, but the scenes which step in and out of the two time periods are woefully overwrought and disjointed. Any real moments of insight are lost within the play’s baggy 1 hour and 45 minutes running time. You have to sit through multiple lengthy scenes, such as a mother and daughter squabbling whilst visiting their elderly relative in hospital, or a monologue by a talkative mother on the verge of a breakdown, before finally stumbling upon something of value.

Yes, it could be said that Mary Seacole and many immigrant black women working in the NHS today have prioritised the needs of white people over their own. This is explored in Mary Seacole’s absurdist fever dream within the play’s final moments. But does the audience need to be taken on such a meandering route in order to deliver this point?

There are also many distracting oddities: Mary Seacole’s deceased mother wears an earpiece device to connect with her daughter, and a modern-day nurse plays world of warcraft on her mobile before she is on a call with Florence Nightingale.

I’m not sure whether the fault lies entirely with Sibblies Drury’s writing and the struggle to capture how racial disparities have continued through the generations in a coherent piece. Or whether the blame also partly lies with Nadia Latif’s unclear direction. Kayla Meikle’s gutsy portrayal of Mary Seacole is the play’s only highlight, drawing laughs for many of her comedic quips.

There are also lots of things going on within Tom Scutt’s busy set. As one scene transitions from a nurse training event in a modern hospital to the battlefield during the Crimean War, lots of soil as well as bloodied and mangled mannequin corpses, crash onto the stage from above. Gimmicky moments such as these are probably meant to spark shock, but they only amplified the overall lack of sense unfolding before us.

Exploring a pioneering black woman’s experience of working in healthcare is not only a compelling premise but a topical one. But this play, unfortunately, failed to ignite. Seacole’s story probably deserved greater care and respect than this haphazard dramatisation.

Donmar Warehouse, until 4 June; donmarwarehouse.com

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