Pros: A moving and tender play, which connects intimate stories of real lives to bigger questions. What makes us human? Are we more than our DNA?
Cons: The play combines three different stories while giving a lot of scientific information and so required a high level of concentration.
The Albany launched its exciting spring programme of theatre, music and spoken word performances this week with the world premiere of How to be Immortal, written by Mira Dovreni. The Albany is a lively performing arts centre in the heart of Deptford that prides itself on presenting theatre that is relevant to the local community. Penny Dreadful Productions, who produced the play, create new works based on the true stores of ordinary people. The story revolves around a young couple from Catford, Rosa and Mick, who are coming to terms with the birth of their baby at the same time as Mick is dying of a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Intertwined with this is the story of Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 30, when her daughter was only two years old. Her cells are still alive today; they were taken and grown outside her body and were the first human cell line to survive in this way. This was done without the knowledge or permission of her family. The third story is about the scientist, George Otto Gey, who grew the cells.
The set is very sparse and looks like a laboratory. There are few props: a small case that contains items of clothing that belonged to Henrietta and a bath that represents the bathroom Mick decorates for Rosa. Deborah goes in the case to touch and smell her mother’s clothes and Rosa sits in the bath and plays Mick’s voice mail message repeatedly.
Clare Perkins plays Deborah Lack with wit and sensitivity, and gives the character a powerful combination of vulnerability and strength. In one of the most moving scenes of the play, we see her relive the death of her mother after being allowed to read her medical notes. The one thing she had wanted to know all her life was how her mother had died.
Even though Mick is dying of cancer, his and Rosa’s relationship does have a romcom feel to it. Anna-Helena McLean gives Rosa an ethereal otherworldly quality. This suits the sensitive musician she is playing and the actress is obviously an accomplished cello player. Mick, played by John McKeever, is a less rounded character, a mild mannered cheeky chap who becomes more of a presence after he has died. I found the role of wacky 1950’s scientist George Otto Gey, also played by John McKeever, problematic as the style of comedy jarred with the rest of the play. On the whole I enjoyed the scientific parts of the play and liked the idea of the collaboration between scientists and artists (parts of the play were developed with clinician scientists). Some of the descriptions of cell life and accompanying images on the screen were very moving.
In the end both women are able to make a connection with what they have lost. Deborah does it by reclaiming Henrietta as her mother, rather than as a famous collection of cells in laboratories all over the world. Rosa does it through the music and the baby she and Mick created together.
Author: Mira Dovreni
Director: Kirsty Housley
Producer: Mira Dovreni and Philippe Spall
Box Office: 020 8692 4446
Booking Link: http://www.thealbany.org.uk/tickets/1091/Theatre/How-to-be-Immortal
Booking until: 29 January 2014