Edinburgh Fringe Festival Review: SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS

IN BRIEF Fascinating and significant theatrical archaeology celebrating an unsung working class female scientific pioneer  

“There’s so much to uncover” says young Mary Anning, cleaning fossil specimens 200 years ago. “Will they dig us up one day?” she ponders. Thankfully, yes. This working-class scientific pioneer is finally given her due respect in this entertaining and engrossing archaeology of her almost-forgotten life, buried for almost 200 years under the weight of class and sexism.

The show begins as a lecture but is interrupted by a forthright voice from the audience. It is Mary Anning, the subject of the lecture. She takes over and tells her own story. And it is quite a story.

The daughter of a cabinet maker whose passion was fossil hunting along the coastline in Lyme Regis, Mary grew up helping her father and by the time she was eight, she was selling shells to tourists and daytrippers to help the family get by.

Soon after her father’s death,11-year old Mary’s discovery of an Ichthyosaur was sold to a collector simply to put food on the family’s table. Mary became in-demand as fossil hunting became fashionable, but unable to escape their poverty trap, her finds were always bought, appropriated by and credited to their buyers.

Mary’s dedication was immense, teaching herself to read English and then French in order to keep up with the specialists of the day. She is an intriguing character as written by Helen Eastman and acted by Antonia Weir.

Mary is endearingly portrayed as down-to-earth young woman, no-nonsense, wary of pretence and even a little abrupt. Her honesty and authenticity as a poor working class woman made it totally impossible to reconcile her with the class-ridden world of The Geological Society, where in the early 1800s, no women were allowed. Mary distrusts words but prefers numbers as being less open to corruption or interpretation.

Madeleine Skipsey’s compassionately but briskly-directed 60-minute show provides some fun along the way too; the History of Geology in Ten Men was cleverly visually presented, and there are a couple of cameos from a middle-class couple, she full of questions and open-minded while he thinks he knows better in every unknown, illustrating the oppressive social code of the day.

There are some lovely details in the writing, where words become visual actions and gradually change their meaning; also, a delightful collective noun is born – a “waltz” of gentlemen, as Mary waltzes with an illustrated list of men who used her and her skills, and took her discoveries for a price. Also effective is the set design which becomes a multitude of different things, including the rocky seascape and the repository for her finds.

As Mary herself says “There are many ways to tell my story”, going so far as to suggest some alternative endings which sound great to us today but sadly didn’t happen as she died very young.

The important thing is that her life story, as much as is known, is told here in this show, and we are left with an entreaty to spread the word. Almost 200 years later Mary Anning is finally recognised as the pioneer that she undoubtedly was.  We must be grateful to Scandal and Gallows company for giving us a chance to rewrite the story’s ending – and right an historical wrong.

SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS plays at Underbelly, Cowgate, at 1.30pm daily to Aug 25 (not 12). Tickets and information here

Note: All Edinburgh shows were seen in preview and therefore it didn’t feel appropriate or fair to star-rate them

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