THE playwright Caroline Bowder knows how to stretch her actors.
Aurora Adams has the unenviable task of playing the Virgin Mary,
first as a statue and then as a vision. Sixteen-year-old Guillaume
Gougeon plays the disembodied spirit of an embryo in limbo.
Northfield End TC's Conversations with Mary is certainly
not a naturalistic play.
Bowder knows how to stretch her audience, too. The 70-minute
piece is almost unremittingly sombre. It is a reflection on the
changing attitude of the Roman Catholic Church to stillborn
children between the 1970s and the present day. Maire (Mary Tynan)
is a young, pregnant, unmarried woman in rural Ireland, where she
is treated with cold moral disdain by her family and her church. We
meet Michael, the father of her unborn child (Matt Lord), in
unrepentant middle age.
Maire loses her baby late in the pregnancy. She bears her grief
through decades in which the austere teaching of the Roman Catholic
Church is that children who die unbaptised dwell in the cheerless
and godless state of limbo.Only in later life does she find a man
who treats her with kindness (Tim Styles). By this time, the Church
has changed its teaching. According to the play, this is because
the Virgin Mary had a word with Pope Benedict XVI, having had her
heart softened by Maire's unborn son, Tom.
The problem with the play is its lack of dramatic tension. The
story is presented as monologues and conversations with imaginary
presences. It is only toward the end, after nine painfully slow
scene-changes, that two credible characters engage with each other.
The scene that we really want to see, in which Maire has a showdown
with her feckless former lover, is alluded to but not
A drama in this style can be engaging if the language is rich
and interesting enough to hold an audience, or if the anguish of
the story is leavened with humour. But the playwright chooses a
language that is bare and staccato, and there is no wit to vary the
pace. The only exception to this is a dance with which the Virgin
Mary introduces Tom to the rapture of paradise, which is very funny
(not entirely intentionally). Perhaps trying to imagine yourself in
heaven when you are in a bare studio space above an East End
factory was too much of a stretch for the imagination.
Informative, yes; impassioned, yes; entertaining, no. But maybe
that was too much to expect of a play about limbo.
Conversations with Mary started its run at The Rag Factory,
east London. It continues at St Silas's, Islington, from 12 to 13
April, then at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden, from 15 to 20 April,
and finally at St Mary's, Henley-on-Thames, on 2 May.