The story of Mary Barton and Bertold Wiesner is a fascinating one; pioneers of artificial insemination from the late 1930’s to 1967, they used Wiesner’s sperm to impregnate thousands of women. The evidence – destroyed.
Years later, siblings and half siblings are uncovered, which is where writer, Maud Dromgoole takes us; some stories are based on truth, others purely fictional. The overriding theme, however, is identity: how important is it to know your real family?
The character list of siblings is vast, and played by only two actors: Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens. They jump wildly from one sibling to the next – the set helps navigate which character is which, as character names are lit up in individual photo frames on the walls. Nevertheless, it is still very hard to follow – with 40 characters between them, some with scenes lasting only a few seconds, it’s difficult to make sense of each scenario and understand how each person is connected to the other. With so much going on, the story fails to have much gravitas, just a lot of meaningless scenes. There’s a real need to connect with the main characters, but they’re barely given a chance to breathe. Ethel discovers she is part of the “Barton Brood”, while her girlfriend Gracie struggles with her father’s passing – there is enough content within their relationship to fuel a whole play, but we’re dragged into other scenarios instead, with cheap laughs and naff puppetry. With such a complex subject, the play begs for simplicity.
However, Fielding and Stephens deal with the character swaps artfully. The baby shower scene is a prime example where they constantly switch between all the siblings, and it works – it brings across the sheer madness of the situation. If this scene was part of a much simpler storyline with two main characters, then it would make the same point, but with more impact. With too much going on, the play feels incoherent, relying far too much on the set to carry the story.
Mary’s Babies is full of promising content, it just requires more simplicity, less characters and a real focus on the themes of identity and human connection.