Æ Review – Mary of the High Seas

Jul 24 2011 | By More
Rehearsed Reading/Concert performance

Heather Pascal as Mary Read and Rhys Williams as Andrew davidcruickshanksphotograp hy.com

Review by Thom Dibdin

Church Hill Theatre

A feisty central character with an incredible life history lies at the heart of Joel Mason’s book for the new musical Mary of the High Seas, which is receiving a rehearsed read and sing-through at the Church Hill Theatre this weekend.

Mason is joined in the venture by composers Rosaleen Bans and Bruce Fraser, with additional music by Theo Seller and Greg Fullerton. The result is intriguing and while it is not yet perfect this series of concert performances using professional performers shows that it has plenty of potential.

True appreciation of the show itself is rather hampered by what has been  described as a “lively” acoustic, meaning that the bare walls of the small studio space make the sound echo and reverberate until you can’t actually hear what is being said or sung.

Not that this bothers Heather Pascal as Mary Read, the Mary of the musical’s title. You get a real flavour for her character, brought up as a boy in 16th century London to hide the truth of her older brother’s death. Discovering her real name is Mary not Mark when she is 13 she also discovers, on stealing one of her mother’s dresses, that she will lose all her freedom to go where she pleases if she dresses in women’s clothing.

It is this quite modern examination of the character which is the existing musical’s greatest asset. While you can’t help thinking that she wouldn’t have been debating her “rights” with her mother, Mary’s voyage of self-discovery is a fascinating one. Time and again, the mask of masculinity is what saves her while her undoing comes when she tries to embrace her true self as a woman.

It is also a very timely work in the week of the Murdoch’s appearance at the Westminster parliament. As an impoverished woman advancing without the benefit of gender, money or family it highlights a world of rich, white men of good stock who aim to keep all the power and wealth for themselves. The pirate ship which Mary eventually joins is portrayed as a haven of democracy in its midst.

Mason has also written an great selection of supporting characters. Mary’s mother Helen, played by Janet Lawson, has the interesting task of portraying depth to the audience while being seen by her daughter in all the two-dimensional prejudices of the teenaged. She has a great song, The Way to a Man’s Heart, a tongue twister with a belting chorus and a sweetly tripping, and highly ironic, middle section.

Mary’s life in the army as Mark Read, being advanced into a horse regiment from a private after showing the skills of a commander on the battle fields of Flanders, is sketched in with plenty of comic depreciation of the commanding officers. Here, the music becomes better-used to drive the plot forward, culminating in a hugely vulgar drinking song.

As the plot moves on to the high seas, with “Mark” Read’s life as a sailor and then a pirate, the music keeps to the fore. There is a lot of plot development which could use more of the musical format to help it go forward, but there are some great tunes in here and some nicely worked duets and ensemble pieces.

The supporting characters become a bit more complex and you can’t help but think that this is the real heart of what Mason wants the musical to be. Pirate captain Calico Jack (Mike Daviot), the various members of the crew, in the vicious Cooper (Kenneth McColl), Scotty (Alex Donald) and the mysterious Bon (Molly Claire Bunder) who is Mark’s equal in a fight, are all well drawn, while the dramatic device of Bon and Calico Jack’s relationship works well.

A big tango scene after the pirates capture an Argentinean ship is an  excellent way to finish the first act on a high, as the ships carpenter Andrew (Rhys Williams) who has been dragooned into the crew shows the crew how to do the dance.

The second half doesn’t add up, though. The story arc is fair enough, but is has a parsimonious two songs to go with bucket loads of plot. The development itself  focusses too closely in the minutiae of events rather than going for big sweeping drama which the whole piece needs to grow into an explosive finale. The ending itself is bitter, too, with Mary caught and convicted to be hung. Beautifully done, but bitter in a way that doesn’t fit with the general tone of the whole piece.

There is plenty of scope here for a hugely expensive West End-style  musical, complete with land and sea battle scenes, rollicking comedy and big musical numbers. What it needs is a hard look at its structure – a flashback format might serve well given the downbeat ending – and equally tricky decisions of what might be dropped or diminished and what needs beefing up.

It is fascinating to see a piece of theatre during its development and hopefully this one will be back in some form or other. Another professional concert reading might be appropriate, but it would also be wonderful to see a full performance staged in association with one of Edinburgh’s more talented amateur musical companies.

Edit: I meant to include link’s to the production’s facebook page http://www.facebook.com/MaryoftheHighSeas and  web page http://maryofthehighseas.weebly.com/index.html


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