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  • Florence Carr-Jones

Review: Mary: A Gig Theatre Show

Rating: ★ ★ ★  

The Last Dinner Party is playing on the speakers as you enter, the cast are intermingling on stage with the audience, and you can sense a palpable excitement in the room. People are ready for a show, but not any kind of show – a gig theatre show.


Rona Johnston, assuming the role of Mary Steward, opens with her band of Marys: Hester Irving (Fiddle/Bass), Laura Coull (Drums/Bass), Alli von Hirschberg (Guitar), Izzie Atkinson (Singer), and Jodie Kirkwood (Singer) positioned in a satisfying array of levels behind her. As Johnston narrates the historical journey that lies ahead, guiding the audience through the life of Mary Queen of Scots, I can't help but think that this opening bears a striking resemblance to John McGrath's opening in the renowned 7:84 theatre company’s "The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil."


The music is multi-layered and the whole cast are phenomenally talented. It is a joy and surprise to watch as they move from instrument to instrument – a highlight is when drummer Laura Coull (having already switched to and fro with an electric guitar) pulls out a harmonica giving Elizabeth I, played by Izzie Atkinson, the background to do a scrumptious jazzy riff. The music leaps through different genres however there is a distinct and satisfying build throughout as Mary’s story grows more perilous; we leave behind the traditional folk music of the French court she grew up in and it’s replaced by harder rock as she is trapped in English prison.


The duet between Mary Stewart (Johnston) and Elizabeth I (Atkinson) stands out as a high point, with their vocals inducing goosebumps as they perform a beautifully crafted song. The song encapsulates the two contrasting queens' storylines, overlaying each other and almost converging but never quite the same, accentuating the reality that the two historical figures, though often fictitiously portrayed as having met, never did.


Katie Slater skilfully directs moments of humour seamlessly interwoven with the more serious and harrowing narrative of Mary Stewart. This executes the perfect blend of music, narrative, and humour. The stage is alive with the energy of the cast bouncing off each other and enjoying themselves – it’s a contagious feeling. Using singers Izzie Atkinson and Jodie Kirkwood to act out during songs whilst the rest of the band are playing is a nice touch and one I think could have been utilised more. Additionally, sometimes the static mic stands felt constrictive to more movement in the performance.


Phoebe Wiseman’s stage design is simple, yet effective: regal reddish rugs line the stage intertwining royal essence with bedroom gig vibes, creating an intimate and alluring atmosphere. This works seamlessly in tandem with Isabel Read’s lighting design capturing the mood and scenery as we travel through locations and time.

The costumes are modern yet timeless and all incorporate a touch of tartan whether that be Johnston’s fiery tartan tights or Coull’s effortlessly cool kilt which overlays a pair of pinstripe trousers. Again, so simple but works so well.


My only qualm with this production is the ending which felt abrupt. Despite an inventive and captivating retelling of Mary Queen of Scots, I felt there was a gap in the delivery of the relevance of this historical narrative to our present. The show’s description had raised my expectations by pledging to ‘searingly question the treatment and portrayal of women historically and today’ – however I found this exploration, if undertaken at all, somewhat shallow.


Overall, the entire production was such an impressive achievement, showcasing the immense talents of Rona Johnston’s writing. It’s fun, informative and constantly inventive.  The cast hinted at a potential Fringe run, and I believe it would be a perfect fit. If you happened to miss it this time, make sure to catch it on the next opportunity – it's worth a watch.

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