Searching through the Fringe guide for a show worth seeing is a job that could perhaps be likened to archaeology – you spend hours carefully probing, sorting the dross from the distinctive (and always with the risk of discovering that what you initially took to be a precious and unique specimen is actually just a pile of dried-out droppings).
While everyone will find something to like here, the impact of seeing this show at the right time could be enormous for a young person considering their path in the world.
Occasionally however, you are rewarded for your careful combing and such is the case with Scandal and Gallows Theatre’s She Sells Sea Shells.
Buried several strata beneath George VI bridge in the Iron Belly, the play tells the story of perhaps paeleontology’s most-unsung heroine, Mary Anning – the Lyme Regis cabinetmaker’s daughter responsible not just for finding and assembling the world’s first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons but for laying the groundwork for many of the principles core to the modern science of geology.
By any standards, Mary Anning was an exceptional human being. At a time when most women – most people – couldn’t read, Mary spoke French, self-taught to read the works of Cuvier, the pre-eminent geologist of the time. This drive, combined with her natural talent for observation and analysis, marked her out as a true scientist amongst gentleman amateurs and Scandal and Gallows do a superb job of dramatising this contrast in an efficient and engaging way.
As Anning, Antonia Weir is a focussed package of simmering emotions – rapture at the wonders of the world undercut by rage at seeing lesser men credited with her discoveries due simply to the conventions of the age.
Alongside her, Charlie Merriman and Emma MacLennan form an energetic chorus, shifting chameleonically between roles to sketch a portrait of 19th Century scientific society that is at once amusing, enlightening and thought-provoking.
The cast also achieve this vivid picture with very little in the way of props; two blackboards, one cabinet and a few washing lines forming a versatile canvas for some very imaginative staging – the aforementioned plesiosaur being a particular highlight.
Certainly, the show is not without its flaws – Anning’s anger is certainly justified but it does tend to dominate the character and the narrative at times, leaving Weir with less to play with in her performance and leading to the few moments of justice for Mary to be skated over rather abruptly.
The pace also lags a little when it touches on Mary’s family life with some aspects, such as the family’s religious beliefs or Mary’s love-life, feeling forced-in to create tension only to peter out inconclusively and rather abruptly.
That said, Scandal and Gallows have succeeded in creating a sharp, affectionate portrait of a sharp but brilliant woman. In an age when efforts to increase diversity in science have never been greater, Anning stands as a prime example of the impact that an engaged, intelligent person can have.
While everyone will find something to like here, the impact of seeing this show at the right time could be enormous for a young person considering their path in the world. It’s a bit perplexing then that the audience was largely composed of dusty fossils like myself.
Two weeks remain until schools go back so I’d urge any parent with kids of an age and with time to spare to bring them to this show. After all, with the right outlook, who knows what they might discover?