3 – 29 Aug, not 10, 16, 23
This is the fascinating story of the Creole woman Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881), carer, healer, herbalist, tailor, merchant, hotelier, gold prospector, adventuress and doctress, who travelled extensively, set up her own field hospital in the Crimean War, published the story of her ‘marvellous adventures’, and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. In 1991 she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit and in 2004 was voted the greatest black Briton.
Cleo Sylvestre gives a commanding performance. From her first entry in her blue crinoline dress and vibrant pink shawl she brings this extraordinary woman to life. An encounter in a London street between an ex-patient from the Crimea and ‘Aunty Seacole’ starts her remembering her past – her childhood memories of her Scottish father, Major James Grant, who died when she was small, and growing up with her Creole mother, Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica. Her mother was also a doctress – a practitioner of Afro-Caribbean medicine – and from an early age Mary helped and learned from her.
Mary’s first patient was a long-suffering dolly: she progressed to local cats and dogs, which soon learned to run from her, and by the time she was twelve, she was helping her mother with her patients. Listening to them was an important part of their treatment, and Mary heard wonderful tales of other lands: her desire to travel was awoken. She particularly wanted to visit England and her father’s home, Scotland: when she was sixteen she was invited by relatives to visit them in London, and so her extraordinary adventures began.
Mary survived fire at sea (in a wooden sailing vessel), began making West Indian pickles and preserves to sell to London merchants, collected shells in the Bahamas to sell in Kingston market, ran a boarding house, ran a store, met and married her husband – Horatio Hamilton Seacole, a godson of Lord Nelson, was widowed, lost her mother, treated the victims of a cholera epidemic in Panama, becoming a local heroine, returned to Jamaica where yellow fever was attacking the Europeans and became known to army and navy officers – which stood her in good stead when she went to the Crimea, desperate to use her medical knowledge, only to find herself ignored by the white British War Office (“War is a man’s business”). Thanks to her military connections she was able to set up a military nursing camp a year before Florence Nightingale arrived there; she ran a hotel and general store, made friends with the famous chef Alexis Soyer who was there at his own expense to advise on cooking for the army and navy; she witnessed the horrors after the siege of Sebastopol. She left the Crimea penniless and wrote the account of her adventures which became a best seller and is still in print today. The ‘Benefit for Mary Seacole’ with which the show begins was attended by many people, but the organising company failed and Mary didn’t receive a penny.
Mary Seacole loved wearing brightly-coloured clothes and hats: Cleo Sylvestre paints her life in the brightest of colours, and ensures that she will remain in our memories for a very long time. The show is engaging, entertaining, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable – an interesting commentary on society at a time when slavery was beginning to be abolished but racial and colour prejudice still abounded but above all the true story of a truly amazing, gifted and warm-woman. The performance was rightly greeted with loud and prolonged applause.