WELL over 100 years before women were considered equal enough to be given the vote there was a female in Lyme Regis who was struggling for acceptance in what was predominately a man’s world. Mary Anning was a British fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist who became known around the world for a number of important finds she made in Dorset, yet as a woman she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London, and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. And although she saw herself as a Christian, she also fell foul of the church by questioning their teachings against what she saw as facts, much as Darwin was later to experience.
Peter Cooper’s absolutely fascinating play tells the story of this remarkable woman, setting it in the final months of her life as she is dying of breast cancer, her mind affected by the increasing doses of laudanum she is taking for pain relief. It is enhanced by a simple but extremely effective set (designed by Annette Sumption) that serves as both the local cliffs and Mary’s home, plus a back screen showing the sea or silhouettes of some of the creatures that roamed the Jurassic coast, and atmospheric sound effects and music, the latter composed by Roderick Skeaping.
An outstanding cast of three told the story so well that the audience was completely drawn in and you could have heard a pin drop, so intently were they listening. I must admit though that there were also one or two occasions when the sound effects meant that one really needed to listen hard to hear what was being said, voices being almost drowned out by the ‘storm’ raging outside.
Jane McKell, who is on stage throughout, gives a real tour-de-force as Mary while Rebecca Legrand is utterly convincing whether as Mary’s reluctant nurse, her friend Elizabeth Philpot or the child Mary. Mark Freestone also impresses as Mary’s father, a doctor, the King of Saxony and Henry De La Beche, a fellow geologist.
As I write, images from the play are crowding through my mind – and that, in my book, is a sure sign of the impression that this excellent production made on me.