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Mary Shelley

By • West End
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Mary Shelley, the daughter of the intellectual feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin, was the lover of Shelley and author of Frankenstein. Her story is so remarkable it must be hard to know where to begin with a theatre treatment.

Playwright Helen Edmundson and Shared Experience (in a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Nottingham Playhouse) close in on three sisters – Mary, Fanny and Jane – at the moment the already married Shelley comes into their lives in 1814.

This is two years before the fateful mini-break on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, so vividly dramatised by Howard Brenton in Bloody Poetry, though that episode features here, too, as a reported interlude, before Mary returns, pregnant, to London and reconciliation with her father on her marriage day at the end of 1816.

The play – even though it’s something of a cut-and-paste 'Life with the Godwins' counterpart to Shared Experience’s recent Brontë saga – develops many interesting strands: Godwin’s disapproval of his own louche protégé who nonetheless offers a financial lifeline when business falters; the friendship and rivalry of the girls; the deaths of mothers and children; and the spectre of free love in Shelley’s ideal of “a community of like-minded people”.

Polly Teale’s production, designed by Naomi Dawson in a forest of packed bookshelves, is a familiar Shared Experience experience, with its dry ice and falling snow, phantasmagorical dance sequences, general jumping up and down on a long, scenic dinner table, and insidious use of sound (Drew Baumohl) and lighting (Chris Davey) effects.

Kristin Atherton is a fiery Mary, Flora Nicholson a sweetly reserved Fanny and Shannon Tarbet a precociously forthright little sister Jane, with impressive newcomer Ben Lamb as a convincing, if a little too well-groomed, firebrand poet. Sadie Shimmin is a bustling new Mrs Godwin, trying to keep up with, or bank down, the non-stop philosophical and literary chit chat among the family.

And a special nod for the recently bereaved William Chubb (his wife, the journalist Cassandra Jardine, died of cancer just over two weeks ago) who gives a sterling and carefully nuanced performance as the head of a family electrified with ideas, passion and a sense of its own importance as legislators of mankind.


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