The Plaza Theatre in Romsey was built in the early 1930’s and is enticingly billed as an Art Deco venue with bucket loads of character, (in fact this is an entirely accurate description). It is also home to the much praised Romsey Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (RAODS). So, for these reasons, as first time visitors, we were expecting a double whammy of a treat. We were not disappointed.
The latest RAODS production is Mary Shelley, a play by multiple award winning playwright and screen writer Helen Edmundson, which was first performed nationwide to critical acclaim in 2012. The cinema and film enthusiasts amongst us may well recall, if not have actually seen, a film of the same name that was on general release last year, and, while the story line and characters are historically similar (albeit both are based largely on conjecture), the script of the play is superior in just about every respect. It concentrates on the early crucial years in Mary Shelley’s life – from when, aged 16, she meets the amoral and already married poet Percy Bysse Shelley, their subsequent scandalising elopement to France and later relocation to Lake Geneva to spend time with the bohemian Lord Byron, through to her writing one of the greatest Gothic novels in the English language. All of this by the age of just 19! Of course Mary Shelley will always be primarily remembered as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. However, she was the daughter of the now celebrated free thinker and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (who died soon after giving birth to her daughter Mary) and William Godwin, a radical anarchist philosopher and writer, who was burdened by huge debts. This undoubtedly explains why Mary Shelley came to be so headstrong and live a remarkable and unconventional life that would raise eyebrows even in modern times. It also gives insight into how the influences of her Mother and Father’s writings lead her to conceive the story of Frankenstein….
However, this play pays little attention to the book. It is a different kind of horror story where the passion of an intense love affair and the meeting of two liberal minds lead to the destruction of their families and to heartbreak and grief. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are moments of humour and displays of genuine affection between the Wollstonecraft-Godwin family. It is a very intense story, but one that has been expertly crafted by a gifted playwright, and delivered by an accomplished company of actors and a skilful Director.
The play is performed on a minimalist stage with no more than a table, three chairs, a few books scattered on the floor, a bench and a white screen onto which images are projected. Director Paul Green explains in the programme notes that he “dispensed with a realistic setting and instead used movement, lighting and visuals to create moods and impressions”. This is an inspired arrangement and works perfectly. Like the stage the costumes are simple and appropriate for the setting.
In the opening scene the actors enter the stage moving and dancing in time to accompanying ethereal music and layered vocals. The audience know immediately everything is different to what they were expecting, but in a good way. All of the music is original, composed by March uk, and with incidental street noises and other sounds a sensitive ambience and atmosphere is created.
The cast of six actors are in equal measure near to being faultless. Lilly Holmes, as Mary Shelley, is sensitive and idealistic in moments of passion yet spiky and forthright when challenged. James Rosser, as Percy Shelley, is fickle and paces the stage frenetically, while releasing fusillades of impassioned dialogue in the way that celebrated Romantic Poets and libertarians are meant to do. Neil Gwynne, as William Godwin, is a brooding and commanding figure as he endeavours to deal with all of the financial and family troubles that have landed upon him. Jane Russell, as Mrs Godwin, is a thoroughly unpleasant woman who becomes understandably hysterical time and again as her world continuously collapses around her. Suzanna Tompkins, as Fanny Wollstonecraft and Harriet Shelly, is empathetic and caring as she plays out the tragic parts of these roles of wronged women who both commit suicide. And finally Rachel Tobin, as Jane Clairmount, is excitable and feckless, but steadfastly loyal to Mary and Percy. Each and every one of the cast triumph in their roles.
This is a quality production of provocative serious drama and quality music that should not be missed. It runs until 28th September.