The world premiere of “Monstrous Bodies” (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O’Day Lane) was held at the Dundee Rep Theatre on April 19.
Running until May 6, the joint production by Dundee Rep and Poorboy Ensemble was written and directed by local woman Sandy Thomson.
Set in Dundee, the production tells the story of two teenage girls striving to find their voice in uncharted territory centuries apart - Mary Shelley in 1812 and Roxanne Walker in 2017 - and has received real critical acclaim.
Explaining her local links, Sandy said: “My theatre company Poorboy is based in the UK and the USA and we make work all over the world but I was born and brought up in Arbroath. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London to train and then lived all over. I moved back to live in Auchmithie and have run my company from there ever since. We recently did an event called ‘Unexpected Women’ in the Auchmithie Village Hall to gather some of the stories of remarkable women in the area.
“I went to Inverbrothock School and my Primary 5 teacher, Anne Wujec, is name checked in Monstrous Bodies as a teacher of Roxanne, one of the main characters. It seemed like a nice way to say thank you to the teacher who encouraged me to write and used to send my stories from class off to competitions - I still have books I won as a result of her efforts.”
Sandy first got the idea for the play years ago when she saw a plaque in Dundee explaining “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley had lived in the city. She explained: “I had never heard of this and that seemed strange, since I research local stories quite often. I thought it was exciting to find that the young woman who invented science fiction lived in the town when she was 14.”
Sandy wrote the play over two years. She said: “I did early research and created some script then did a development period with the actors of the Poorboy Ensemble and Dundee Rep Ensemble at Dundee Rep in both 2015 and 2016.
“Making a big play takes time. When it’s historical there is a lot of research to be done. I feel like I lived in 1812 for quite a bit. And I hadn’t read Frankenstein before - like most people I had seen various films - so that was a whole other research strand. Then the modern storyline in the play is set in a high school and I hadn’t been in one of those for a long time so Sarah Crabb, who founded Poorboy with me 15 years ago and now teaches at Grove Academy, arranged for me to sit in on some of her classes to get a feel for the school day.” Asked how pleased she was with the play and the positive critical reaction, Sandy replied: “I’m delighted with the production. Dundee Rep have backed this production to the hilt and really sizeable productions like this are only possible with cooperation and co-production between creative organisations. They made this possible. It’s a show that is very much bigger than one person.
“I hadn’t worked with designer Natasha Jenkins before and it’s been amazing to have someone come in and envision the world in all its broad sweep and fine detail. The structure onstage that becomes a boat, a school, a factory, a regency drawing room. There are sails on boats and Regency floors and windows that turn into ice sheets in Greenland, there is a huge cast moving through two timelines and each are costumed beautifully. I don’t actually know how she and her teams did it. I just accepted the miracle. I walked through wardrobe before the show opened the other day looking at regency dresses and waistcoats and dragon masks and was just laughing with delight. She has thought of everything and created a look and a language that is fundamental to the play people come to see.
“It’s been equally great to work with Emma Jayne Park as choreographer and with my Assistant Director Jen Bates. I already had a huge respect for the work they made with their own companies - Cultured Mongrel and Deaf Hearing Ensemble - and it was fantastic to see their creative and producing skills being engaged in this huge project.
“I created a show with Dundee Rep’s Creative Learning Department last year - Address to a Liar - and had worked with sound designer Colin Lowson on that, so we had an idea of how to approach this show. But I bet not even he imagined I’d be asking for the noise of pigs being cut up to be dropped into an 1812 piano arrangement with a hip hop beat at the back!
“And then there are the actors. Dundee Rep has such a strong and capable Ensemble and so does Poorboy. It was lovely to see all those talented people in a room together finally realising a work that they helped create over two years and two different development periods. My scripts and direction don’t work without strong, capable, quick witted and passionate actors. I think recent reviews in the The Stage and The Glasgow Herald both pick up on how sharp and strong the performances are. This is true of everyone, including the Young Company of 15 dancer/performers aged 14 to 19 whom we brought together specifically for the show.”
Asked if she expected the production to tour, Sandy had this to say: “At this point, no, I don’t see a tour. It is a frankly enormous project that would require huge resources to take on the road. It was designed to be seen at Dundee Rep and we didn’t revise anything we were doing to make the show easy to take out on the road. We committed to something spectacular but perhaps unrepeatable.
“However, discussion about other works are ongoing and that might create a new marvel that goes on the road. Also Dundee Rep committed to publishing the script and Freight Publishers have taken it on and I am very happy about that. I really hope that schools will produce the play - it has 30 parts and most of them are girls and that’s the make up of most drama classes.
“The play is about young women who are 14 years old. I’ll be happy to see the play re-imagined by the young people it talks about. I already have my first invitation to a High School in the Highlands next year to see a class of teenagers perform this show and I’m very happy about that.”
Monstrous Bodies runs until May 6 and some tickets are still available this link
Dundee Rep and Poorboy Ensemble have made 50 £5 tickets available for each performance, to encourage young people into theatre. To access this price, phone 01382 223530 or pop in and quote “Fearless”. These tickets are limited in number so early booking is advised. Some of these seats are on stage and some may have a restricted view.