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Mary Shelley

Helen Edmundson’s play, premiered in 2012, forms part of AUB Productions’ ‘Shelley at the Shelley’ (Thursday, Nov. 8th until Saturday, November 17th), along with a devised piece, ‘Freakenstein’, and Liz Lochhead’s ‘Blood and Ice’, which focuses on the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein’. On the strength of ‘Mary Shelley’, I have already purchased our tickets for Sunday evening’s performance of the latter.

The cast are all third year students on AUB’s BA (Hons) Acting course but this is, apparently, their first public performance. I’m told by one in the know that that engendered some greater-than-usual pre-opening nerves among the cast but there was no evidence of this on stage.

Beforehand, it is worth looking at the display of designs for the AUB’s productions, produced by AUB students on the BA (Hons) courses in Costume and Performance Design and in Make-up for Media and Performance. Equally impressive are those design elements within the performance itself, beginning, as one enters the auditorium, with Tish Mantripp’s beautiful set the best set I’ve yet seen on the Shelley’s small, raked stage. John Camble’s and team’s realisation of the students’ design, complete with upstage platform, is visually appealing, subtly atmospheric and very effective in maximising both the stage’s space and the actors’ and director’s realisation of Edmundson’s script.

Ynna Ramirez’s costumes too contribute greatly to the overall impact of the production, not least in their reflection of character, including the appropriation by oldest sister Fanny of one of Mary’s own dresses, a telling detail within their relationship. It is more than just a name-check too to acknowledge the quality of Sarah Bath’s beautifully-judged, unfussy lighting and Joe Payne’s tellingly sympathetic sound design, including original music. Both contribute enormously to the shifting settings and atmosphere, as well as facilitating smooth, unobtrusive transitions throughout. These elements, complemented by Helen Watts’ confident direction and the casts’ consistently well-paced playing, maintain the audience’s interest and absorption throughout.

The play provides six roles with plenty to offer the actor along with one much smaller role. In the latter, as Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet (doubled with a serving-girl), Susannah Greenow, reminds us that need be no such thing as a “small” performance. Harriet’s is an unseen presence from early in the play and her brief appearance is an important one. We are aware of her fleeting presence but without it being overplayed, allowing Harriet to illustrate aspects of others as much as it reveals itself.

For this company – and the ensemble playing is a real and constant strength, facilitated by and rewarding Edmundson’s what is a beautifully-crafted play – the toughest roles are probably those of Mary’s father, radical writer and bookseller, William Godwin, and his second wife, Mary Jane. Both are much older characters so make particular demands of younger actors. It is greatly to their and the director’s credit that Shaun Cookson and Hazell Mayall produce very effective performances, relying on their own characterisations rather than on intrusive or excessive “aging” make-up. Yes, I was aware of the gap between their playing and actual ages but, in their separate ways, both summoned up their characters through sound acting technique. Shaun Cookson uses his stature and physical presence to create an appropriate sense of paternal authority while conveying Godwin’s own vulnerability and inconsistencies, not least in his struggle to reconcile his radical social philosophy with more domestic anxieties and tensions. Hazell Mayall’s Mrs Godwin arises out of a considered, measured vocalisation, tone and pitch helping in this respect, giving us a mother/step-mother who moves between wearied bitterness, joyous anticipation and acerbic, often humorous commentary.

Brian Bususu avoids the trap of the clichéd ‘Romantic Poet’, playing Percy Shelley as earnest, febrile, unwilling to compromise his ideals and assured of the rightness and ultimate success of his philosophy. His is a consistent performance, throughout the highs and lows of this period of the character’s life.

The three remaining characters, half-sisters (by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) Fanny and Mary, along with younger step-sister Jane (later Claire Clairmont) offer the actors distinct challenges and opportunities. For me, all three grasp these admirably; all three, too, do so by avoiding caricature and making each sibling credible and multi-faceted . As Jane, Abbi Lita certainly radiates the youngest sister’s exuberance and almost fanciful sense of the romantic but does so in a manner that makes us aware of an underlying sensitivity and dignity. In the title role, Imogen Segrave embodies Mary’s passionate nature, embracing a hunger for reading, a reverence for the mother she has never known other than through her writings, a consuming love for Shelley and, indeed, life itself, especially as she comes to believe it should be lived.

What struck me, though, is how, although it takes its title from the writer of ‘Frankenstein’, this play has at its heart the older sister, Fanny. Surrounded by characters driven by and embracing political conviction, romantic passion, artistic aspiration and a determined struggle for survival amid financial difficulties, Fanny, played with generosity, great discipline and a genuine sense of hidden complexity by Elizabeth Lavender-Powell, is a less impulsive but deeply thoughtful young woman, loyal to and seeking to maintain or restore harmony between all around her despite being pulled apart in the effort. This is an especially touching performance, combining kindness, loyalty, dependability and a fragility that is suppressed but of which we are always aware.

This is a rewarding, enjoyable, very professional production, made thus by the consistent quality of the actors’ performances and the production values that inform it throughout. If you can, take the opportunity to attend one of the remaining performances: Sat., Nov. 10th at 7.30pm and Sun. 11th at 2.30 pm.