Pass the laudanum! This is scarier than Frankenstein’s monster.

Mary Shelley at The Playhouse

Blimey, Helen Edmunsen’s Mary Shelley packs so much into two and a half hours, it could actually run as an all-nighter and still have more to say.

Telling the story of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, her disfunctional family and her romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the play tries to explore how a girl of 18 could have written one of literature’s seminal novels.

Mary’s life has a painfully modern feel about it: part of what right on types call a ‘blended family’ with an assortment of half-siblings and a quarrelsome step-mother. Mary’s parents were radical political types and the man she fell in love with was married with a child and a pregnant wife.  All very EastEnders.   Beset by money woes all round, Mary’s relationship with her father, William Goodwin, played beautifully by William Chubb, is fractured when she runs away with Percy Shelley with her dippy half-sister, Jane, in tow.

Edmunsen’s portrayal of Shelley’s romantic poet as a self-indulgent, womanising, political idealist who leaves a trail of destruction in his wake in his pursuit of what he believes in is one of the highlights of the play.

Amid a tale encompassing poverty, political radicalism, infant death and a couple of suicides, there are actually more than a few laughs, which were most appreciated in the midst of all the angst and woe.  I’m sure that there could actually be a full-length play for each of the six characters in Mary Shelley, so well drawn are they here.  Especially moving was Flora Nicholson as Mary’s half-sister Fanny, whose story shows the devastating effects of the actions of those around her going after their dreams with no care for the consequences.

By the end of the play I could absolutely see how an 18-year-old girl could come to write a novel covering the depth of the human experience that’s found in Frankenstein.  Her own life was a study in tragedy and despair faced with fearsome intelligence.  Watching this telling of part of Mary Shelley’s life had me hiding behind my programme in a way that Frankenstein’s monster never could.  This was her actual life.  And that’s a pretty scary thought.

Mary Shelley is on at The Playhouse until 12 May

Tickets from £10 -£21

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