Review: Monstrous Bodies – Dundee Rep

First published in The Times, Thursday April 27 2017

Three Stars

The tale of how Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein in a waking dream while staying at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 is almost as familiar as the plot of the novel itself. Less well known is the author’s connection with the city of Dundee, where the 14-year-old Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) spent several months recuperating from illness in 1812.

Sandy Thomson uses this biographical footnote as the foundation for a new collaboration between the Dundee Rep and Poorboy ensembles. The play, which Thomson writes and directs, is certainly ambitious in its scope, weaving together Mary’s (Eilidh McCormick) spell with the wealthy, socially progressive Baxter family with a contemporary strand in which teenager Roxanne (Rebekah Lumsden) finds herself humiliated and bullied when a classmate takes a topless photo of her at a party and posts it online.

MONSTROUS BODIES, Dundee Rep Ensmeble & Poorboy Ensemble, Dundee Rep, Dundee, Britain - 18 April 2017

Pic: Jane Hobson

These two young women may belong to different epochs but Thomson shows how each must dig deep in order to surmount the patriarchal orthodoxies of their day. Mary’s eventful stay with the Baxters, notably Marianne (Irene MacDougall), a campaigner for women’s rights in the vein of Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, immediately precedes her scandalous elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet. Roxanne, meanwhile, is encouraged to fight back against her tormenters by a new friend, the punkish, book-loving librarian Liberty Smith (Elaine Stirrat).


The intersection of these two lives comes about when Roxanne uses a school talk on Mary’s time in Dundee to reassert control over her own body, image and identity. It’s a contrivance that feels awkward, and in Thomson’s production, the two parts of the narrative never make for entirely easy bedfellows. The 19th century strand, in which Mary helps a young American who has escaped from forced service in the Royal Navy, is compelling enough in its own right. The fictional portion of Thomson’s script frequently gets bogged down in exposition and overstatement. The recurring device of having the supporting cast of selfie-obsessed teenagers (played by an ensemble of local young people) freeze in tableau so the audience can take pictures feels a clumsy addition to an already overstuffed production.

MONSTROUS BODIES, Dundee Rep Ensmeble & Poorboy Ensemble, Dundee Rep, Dundee, Britain - 18 April 2017

Pic: Jane Hobson

While Thomson’s play would undoubtedly benefit from a greedier edit, her production contains some genuinely exciting moments, such as the climactic chase scene that makes full use of Natasha Jenkins’s multi-levelled set design, and Mike Robertson beautifully lights the whole show. McCormick and Lumsden are strong and touching in the leading roles, ably backed up by the large supporting cast.


Box office: 01382 223530, to May 6

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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