Scandal and Gallows Theatre tell of Mary Anning, who discovered the world’s first Ichthyosaur at twelve years old. Josphine Balfour-Oatts reviews She Sells Sea Shells:

She Sells Sea Shells proves a mouthful before it even begins.

A mock lecture soon goes awry when its subject, one Mary Anning (played by the enchanting Antonia Weir), stands from her seat hidden among members of audience. Cloaked in green, Anning’s eyes shine. Her turquoise gaze is piercing as she measures up the spectators staring back at her. She prefers to keep to the facts. Numbers are most precise – words mean memories and memories mean pain, which in turn clouds meaning, meaning a less effective result.

Sea Shells Underbelly Cowgate
Image courtesy of Violet Mackintosh

At just twelve years old, some time before 1836, Anning discovered the remains of the world’s first Ichthyosaur. Born and raised in Lyme Regis (part of what is now called The Jurassic Coast) to a family of ten siblings, her young life was marked by tragedy. Both herself and her brother Joseph were the only two children to survive into adulthood, which was particularly miraculous given that a near-fatal incident saw her struck by lightning as a baby. Her intelligence and voracious curiosity were said to be attributed to this freak accident, a frightening brilliance which led her to make many more important palaeontological findings during her lifetime.

Sea Shells Underbelly Cowgate

On paper, She Sells Sea Shells is a tale of intrigue. Onstage however, it feels somewhat jaded. Weir delights as Anning, but for the chorus (Charlie Merriman and Emma MacLennan), She Sells Sea Shells feels more like an exercise in character acting. Some episodes of movement are heartfelt and entertaining; others verge on pantomime, which can be jarring. Helen Eastman’s script is full of echoes (“Honest?” “Honest! “Honest.”), and while affecting in parts, much of the dialogue is reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

Sea Shells Underbelly Cowgate
Image courtesy of Violet Mackintosh

As daughter to a cabinet-maker, the set is in keeping with Anning’s world, the dresser drawers brimming with ammonites and (with credit to Hannah Snaith) huge cloth centre-pieces bearing anatomical drawings of dinosaurs. They are pegged onto a clothes line, fraying edges disturbed by sudden flurries of choreography.

Unfortunately, this becomes a metaphor for She Sells Sea Shells as a whole – beautifully detailed, rather worn at the edges.

★★★☆☆

She Sells Sea Shells is now playing at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.