A Curious Thing: The story of Mary Anning
Written and directed by Michael Mills. Music and Lyrics by Michael Mills. Performed by Michelle Nightingale. The Ballroom. Ayers House. February 23 – March 11 2023. Adelaide Fringe.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
The stately, decorative ballroom of Ayers House is the ideal venue for Heaps Good Productions’ performance of A Curious Thing: The Story of Mary Anning. Writer and director and palaeontology enthusiast Michael Mills has created a delightful musical adventure about the little known life of the world’s first female palaeontologist, Mary Anning (1799-1848). Before the show begins Mills warms up his school age audience from Bridgewater Primary School with fun filled call and response singing and the lyrics for Let’s Walk Along the Seaside. As the house lights fade Mary Anning (Michelle Nightingale) enters to tell the story of a remarkable woman, fired by a curiosity born at her father’s knee while walking on the seashore and pursued with tenacity and imagination in her search for fossils and the secrets of another time and another life embedded in the rocks. It is a story of one woman’s struggle against a male dominated establishment, supercilious and dismissive of any woman who dared to encroach on their domain and their authority.
It is also a tale of persistence and courage and a belief in one’s destiny. “I knew what I wanted to be. You can be too” Anning says to her wide-eyed and transfixed young audience. She teaches them how to find the part of the rock to split to reveal a fossil within. She shows them her drawing of her major discovery, a fossil that reveals the outline of a prehistoric creature with the head of a lizard, the neck and spine of a snake and a fin and tail of a fish. “What a remarkable creature. “What did it do?” Anning wonders. She is debunked and reviled by her pompous detractors.In a confrontation between her and a member of the Geological Society (Michael Mills), Anning is refused entry. “Should I throw her out” Mills’s character asks the young audience only to recoil from their unanimous “No!” If only Anning’s detractors could have been dismissed so vociferously two centuries ago.
Mills has created a delightful, enchanting and informative musical account of his perfect, passionate palaeontologist. As Mary Anning, Michelle Nightingale gives an utterly captivating performance as a woman inspired by a burning curiosity. She sings Mills’s bright and catchy tunes with a voice as charming and true as her character. Intimately staged with a few simple props to represent the palaeontologist’s fascinating world, A Curious Thing: The Story of Mary Anning is a show for the entire family, young children aged 8 and above and grandparents alike. As some of the children approach Nightingale after the show for an autograph, I can’t help but think that Heaps Good Productions has introduced them to a science and a world of mystery and discovery that will excite them forever. There is also a lesson to be learned for all that there is still much work to be done in the quest for equality and recognition. A Curious Thing: The Story of Mary Anning is the kind of joyful and instructive entertainment that can make a difference. Highly recommended for audiences of all ages!