A working-class woman exploited by academic convention, conducting masses of uncredited labour from which she never sees the true profit; a lieutenant who, in an act of charity, auctions off his entire fossil collection; a dead father; a fossilised Ichthyosaur on a beach in Dorset. “There are different ways you can tell my story,'' says Mary Awning - paleontologist, geologist and fossil collector - in Scandal and Gallows Theatre’s She Sells Sea Shells, “and, just occasionally, it’s a story about science”.
A frenetic, physical three-hander, the hero of She Sells Sea Shells is undoubtedly its boundlessly energetic cast (Antonia Weir, Charlie Merriman, Emma MacLennan). Weir holds the space as the headstrong Mary Awning, whilst Merriman and MacLennan multirole their way through character upon character: each fleshed out three-dimensionally and played with commitment, warmth and sheer talent. Samuel Rayner’s movement compliments their respective talents gorgeously, in a fluid, watchable and irreverently high-powered series of movement sequences threading the play together, played against Hannah Snaith’s fossil designs, strung out as a backdrop.
The struggle when making work from historical documentation is in creating a coherent narrative out of fragments - chiselling off the baggage, cleaning up, rinsing off, sanding down; how is this story being told, how should this story be told, who should tell this story and why? This is something Scandal and Gallows evidently have a deep, rich awareness of. The story in She Sells Sea Shells is as much about Mary Awning as it is about storytelling, narratology and ownership, leaving you with a lot to chew on after the curtain call: not just about the play itself, but about how it is played. Though occasional moments - for example, an extended sequence where the cast went through the motions of cleaning a fossil - feel slightly under-processed, the gorgeous thing about She Sells Sea Shells is that it feels like a fluid document: like the strata of rock it documents, subject to flux, change and transformation.