The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The audience waited patiently for Cleo Sylvestre to enter. A familiar face from TV and film, she approached the audience like long lost friends, projecting instant likeability and warmth. For an hour we were transported back inside of the history books; to be more precise, into the pages of Scottish-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole’s own autobiography, the ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’. She bustled around the tiny stage in her petticoats and pearls and compelled our attention for the next hour. Just as if we were witnesses to the rich and fascinating story of a woman of colour travelling from Jamaica around the world before Caribbean slavery had even ended.
Formidable, brave and strong willed, Mary Seacole had an indefatigable drive towards both healing and entrepreneurship. I’d brought my 12 year old Caribbean-born son along to hear about a famous Caribbean woman who had to fight discrimination to simply go where she was needed, and the recognition of whose legacy is controversial even today. Most of the people in the audience could have been his grandparents, but it would also be of interest to teenagers who like their history. It has certainly done the rounds of schools, where perhaps more direct audience engagement would work well.
Cleo Sylvestre, also the co-author of the play along with Judith Paris, stayed unwaveringly on form with her delivery of such a colourful and flamboyant character; spicing up her narrative with pompous generals, grateful Cockney soldiers and her Jamaican mother taking her out into the country to learn how to ‘pick bush’. Her accents were generally exactly on point, except for the American general insulting her over her skin colour, and the lilt of her Caribbean-British accent veering more towards Trinidad than Jamaica at times. But if you haven’t lived in the Caribbean, you wouldn’t notice a thing.
The set was sparse but she made good use of the space she had. Judging from Seacole’s one known photograph, Sylvestre was visually the perfect choice for the role. As the nurse and business woman was also known for her flamboyant outfits and her love of style, Cleo flounced in, dressed in bright Victorian garb, complete with corset, petticoats and giant pearls. Being a stickler for details in period drama, I would have preferred her to produce a classic handkerchief than a modern tissue to dab her face under the hot lights. She cleverly used the case of ‘simples’ or herbs as a prop for her various adventures of sailing the seas or riding in a London carriage. Her facial expressions and body language brought us the full spectrum of emotion; every Caribbean immigrant’s disappointment at cold, grey, dirty London, without a mango in sight, and she made us feel the horror and despair at the slaughter in the Crimea. The sound effects and voice overs helped us to transport us to a different time and many different places around the world, and this could have been used with greater effect to vary the experience as the play continued.
She touches lightly on the racism and discrimination rife at the time, and made clear the understanding of her lighter-skinned privilege from ‘good Scots blood coursing through my veins’ from her father, a Scottish military man. However, knowing the identity crises that continue to haunt Caribbean people from the mixed-race elite, it was interesting to note that she would be happy to be ‘born as black as any nigger’. Her feeling that it was her destiny to serve her Queen and country helped her to find a way even when doors were closing in her face at every turn. Just as you wonder what gave her the strength of character to continue she proclaims, “I am richer for the courage I have seen in others”.
As the author Andrea Levy said, her story would make a great film. This well-crafted show certainly makes you want to read her autobiography. It must have been very difficult to cut down her extraordinary and adventurous life down to an hour of storytelling. An accomplished and greatly experienced actress, Cleo Sylvestre was perfect for the part, and impressive from the start; she delivered the hour-long solo show story with warmth and flair. Much like her heroine, she didn’t miss a beat.
Reviewer: Lisa Williams