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.