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Theatre Review: Marys Seacole is a perplexing piece that misses the mark

A play about Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole is hectoring and polemical rather than a serious examination of a character and her motivations

Kayla Meikle and Olivia Williams in Marys Seacole, directed by Nadia Latif (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Marys Seacole
Donmar, London, until June 4

Seeking to land a few blows on Florence Nightingale seems on the face of it a pretty strange objective, but that is what Jackie Sibblies Drury is about in her play Marys Seacole.

Olivia Williams portrays the lady with the lamp as high-born, haughty and
hogging the limelight, and Seacole – played by Kayla Meikle – is, by contrast,
a veritable saint, selflessly tending the sick and dying in the Crimean war.

I’m sure Nightingale and Seacole would be bemused by this piece – there was clearly more that united the women than divided them – but supporters of the latter take the view that her skin colour has meant she’s not been accorded the credit she deserves.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but focusing so sharply on this makes for hectoring, polemical theatre, rather than a serious examination of a character and her motivations. Seacole – the British-Jamaican nurse who set up what she called the “British Hotel” to tend to the wounded behind the lines during the Crimean war – is undoubtedly a fascinating character, but there’s no more boring a role for an actress than a goody-two-shoes.

Williams has a lot more fun than Meikle as Nightingale, also working so hard to alleviate suffering during the same war, and, in a number of other roles, shows herself to be an actress of tremendous virtuosity. It’s unfortunate in all the circumstances to have to say this, but Williams steals this show.

The ‘s’ at the end of Mary isn’t a typo, incidentally, as the play sees Marys as the heroines of public health through the generations. It begins in a high-dependency unit as Williams – this time playing a posh middle-aged daughter saying goodbye to her dying mum (Susan Wooldridge) – is relieved
when a modern-day Seacole comes along to comfort them both.

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