Kent Barker reviews the latest work from Hastings playwright and director John Knowles.

I’ll tell you something for nothing: the three people I would least like to be stuck in a small boat with, were all assembled on the stage of the Stables this month.  Quite apart from the fact that they seemed to have been cast adrift from the mysterious Mary Celeste, they were a pretty rum bunch.  There was The Priest who killed prostitutes and the prostitute who killed punters and then there was the Ship’s Boy who wasn’t.  And don’t worry if that last is confusing. Trying to make sense of John Knowles’ latest short work, Mary Celeste and Beast of the Bowery, is not necessarily a requisite.

It may – or may not – help to know that The Mary Celeste was a two-masted American Brigantine that, in 1872, was found adrift and completely deserted with her lifeboat missing, off the Azores.  Her home port was New York with its famous Bowery district, then renowned for its saloons, dancehalls and prostitution.

The effective lamp-lit overture to the play apparently takes place onboard the Mary Celeste itself, but it’s a far cry from the real ship which carried the captain’s wife and child with seven crew members. Knowles’ vessel is a veritable Dante’s Inferno of sexual aberrance.

CREDIT: Peter Mould

The next movement finds our three characters adrift in a lifeboat. The whisky (or rum) Priest claims as a special dispensation from above to kill sex-workers – six so far. But he seems unable to dispatch the apparently immortal Woman in chains on the boat.  She was deemed crazy having slaughtered five clients (abusers?) and ripped out their internal organs. The third character, the accordion-playing Ship’s Boy also claims to have been abused by every male on the mother-ship – including the priest – and had been cast out as a Jonah bringing maritime ill-luck. 

The three actors, respectively Sidney Kean, Maxine DuBois and Hannah Harris, ramp up the tension despite the sometimes confusing narrative. This is not a play with a plot, and trying to unravel its meaning is a fascinating, if perhaps ultimately futile, process. Symbolism is rife. In the coda a blood-red full-moon silhouettes The Woman as the boat breaches a reef and finally heads for land. The Priest, deprived of his silver tipped bullets, has good reason to fear for his future at the hands of a new matriarchy. It’s hard to summon up much sympathy for him – and this is decidedly not a play to visit with your Christian aunt or born-again neighbour.

Some might feel the performances verge on the melodramatic. I found them simply dramatic and had to remember to breathe again at the final curtain.  One small irritation was a pervasive part of the sound-track.  Give me lapping water on a boat’s bows or whistling wind flapping sail/canvas to transport me on
the high seas, but please not repetitive music.

Confining characters to a boat is ever an effective literary and theatrical device – especially given the capricious element of the ocean and its wildlife. Conrad was master of the form with tales like the Shadow Line and Heart of Darkness. Coleridge, with his Ancient Mariner, was another.

Quite frankly I’d prefer to be at sea with Captains Ahab, Quint, and Bligh or even a Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker, than Knowles’s trio of misfits with darkness at their heart.  Unless, of course, I was a psycho-analyst in want of work.

Mary Celeste and Beast of the Bowery was playing at the Stables Theatre. A live music version is planned for 2022.

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