EDINBURGH 2019: BWW REVIEW: SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS, Underbelly Cowgate
The discovery of the first Ichthyosaur fossil in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast, transformed the field of palaeontology. And it was discovered by a 12-year-old, who was not credited at the time.
Because she was a girl, and because herstory was not a consideration in the 19th century.
Mary Anning is the subject of She Sells Sea Shells, both the tongue-twister and the production - the latter is an attempt to let the world know about one of science's most influential women ever.
Except Helen Eastman's script reads more like a lecture than a story, and Madeleine Skipsey's direction doesn't do enough to bring this tale to life. She Sells Sea Shells tries to be intriguing, but feels underwhelming in the grand scheme of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
As the central character, Antonia Weir has an arresting presence, slightly off-balance with an intentionally uncompromising and uncomfortable gaze. She finds comfort in numbers over words, for these are absolute and reassuring. Numbers won't betray or leave her. And, unlike the ending to She Sells Sea Shells, numbers can be resolved. They are a precise way to rationalise an imprecise story.
Eastman's ending is the more satisfying part of the show. It doesn't attempt to summarise, consolidate or placate. Instead, it highlights an open-ended tale about the injustice felt when a woman was not given her due for an incredible intelligence, extensive talent and transformative approach to the field. There are many potential spins to this narrative - Eastman makes a brave choice not to pander to any of these easy outs.
As an ensemble, Charlie Merriman and Emma MacLennan rattle through a variety of characters with capable ease. Many are hammed-up, overwrought archetypes, but each adds colour to the concept. And the three-strong cast turn potentially mundane plot points into sequences of intrigue - the diligence at cleaning each fossil transforms a repetitive act, with some uninteresting choreography, into a dance. It's all in the artistic detail, sculpting away waste residue to reveal the inner beauty and form of a finished piece.
There is potential in She Sells Sea Shells, but it needs a stronger sense of dramaturgy to bring Anning's extraordinary discoveries to life. Or, at least, to remember their past lives.
Image courtesy of Violet Mackintosh