Theatre reviews: The Tale of Typhoid Mary | Looking Good Dead

Marty Ross’s play about the 19th century cook known as Typhoid Mary has some powerful contemporary resonances, but it might pack more punch if the upper-class characters weren’t such broad-brush stereotypes, writes Joyce McMillan

Cat Grozier and David Rankine in The Tale of Typhoid Mary PIC: Leslie Black

The Tale Of Typhoid Mary, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Looking Good Dead, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **

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In an age of pandemic, the story of Typhoid Mary – aka Irish-born cook Mary Mallon – takes on new meaning, for audiences once again forced to think twice about whether they might, even if they feel fine themselves, be carrying infection to others. Born in Co. Tyrone in 1869, Mary was working as a cook for wealthy families in and around New York, in the early 1900s, when public health authorities began to notice a link between her presence and the spread of the illness, which infected seven of the eight households in which she worked, causing widespread sickness, and three deaths.

Since Mary had never suffered from the illness herself, she was naturally reluctant to believe that she had “done anything wrong.” She was first arrested and quarantined by medical authorities in 1907, but campaigned for her release, changed her name, and persisted in working as a cook; she was detained again, and sadly spent the last 30 years of her life in custody.

Her story therefore raises all kinds of questions of urgent relevance today – questions, in particular, about when ignorance about a disease, and how it is spread, begins to shade into a culpable refusal to accept information when it is offered, and to act on it; and in new Play, Pie and Pint drama The Tale of Typhoid Mary, audio writer and storyteller Marty Ross sketches the outlines of the story with great clarity, and some feeling. In David Ian Neville’s vivid production, Cat Grozier plays the feisty and furious Mary with tremendous strength and subtlety, raising all kinds of resonances with those who, for various reasons, have been reluctant to accept the judgment of medical authorities during the current crisis.

The play’s problems come in the portrayal of the ruling class against whom Mary rebels, which is, perhaps of necessity, delivered in caricatured and slightly over-explicit style by David Rankine as a young public health doctor, and Irene Allan as various boss-class figures whose rancid attitudes to the working class in general, and the Irish Catholic working class in particular, would have provoked any self-respecting Irishwoman to doubt their impartiality. There’s a sense, here, of a bigger and more complex story struggling to escape from the one-hour format, or to find a dramatic style that would work well within it; but the story itself is a vital and poignant one, perhaps best told through the character of Mary herself, and a central performance that captures her energy and her tragedy, with memorable force.

A central performance by an indomitable woman is also the best thing about Peter James’s latest touring thriller, Looking Good Dead, playing in Edinburgh this week; but even the energetic and passionate Gaynor Faye, as a put-upon second wife with a surly teenage son, struggles to redeem this clanking horror-show of a thriller. James’s story of an evil gang kidnapping women to become the victims of live-streamed online murders perhaps seems even more unpleasant than usual, in the week of the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s murderer, and the arrest of the killer of Sabina Nessa.

In truth, though, Looking Good Dead fails as a convincing stage whodunnit on almost every level, tastelessly combining the sensational style of an old British B-movie with a televisual structure that transfers awkwardly to the stage. Alongside Gaynor Faye as Kellie, Luke Ward-Wilkinson turns in an effective performance as her teenage son Max, predictably disgusted with the entire older generation; but all the other characters seem like wooden pieces in an old game of cop-show heroics, that sadly gives young Max plenty of grounds for disgust, and barely a glimmer of hope.

The Tale Of Typhoid Mary is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 9 October; Looking Good Dead is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 9 October, and at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 25-29 January 2022

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