REVIEW: Giving Up Marty, Motormouse Productions (VAULT Festival)

Adoption and family reunions are popular themes in the media. Who doesn’t love a feel-good story about an adorable orphan living happily ever after with their new (invariably rich) family? Or a film about finding long-lost family after a lifetime apart? Bonus if the apparent orphan is adopted by people who turn out to be blood relatives! The reality is nothing like this. It’s messy, complicated and doesn’t always result in a happy ending with tap-dancing. But that’s not the story people want to see on stage, is it? Well, actually, some of us do. Emotional turmoil and instability may not be what an audience expects of an adoption storyline, but it’s what those with experience of adoption (and adopted people in particular) deserve. And it’s the story that Karen Bartholomew has set out to tell in Giving Up Marty.

As an adopted person herself, Bartholomew is accutely aware of the way in which adoptee voices are suppressed in the media. Giving Up Marty is her attempt at changing the one-dimensional, rose-tinted narrative that surrounds adoption, by bringing an authentic story to the stage. Acknowledging that adoption practices have changed since her generation, Bartholomew highlights that it remains “immensely complex and largely misunderstood”. Having adopted just a few years ago, we would wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and were delighted to discover that the play would have its premiere at VAULT Festival 2020.

Giving Up Marty centres around Joel (Danny Hetherington), who has just turned 18. Adopted as a baby, he has never known his birth family or the reasons for his adoption. He’s been curious but no more. And he certainly isn’t planning on looking. So it comes as quite the surprise when birth mother, Martha (Dorothy Lawrence) and birth sister, Melissa (Natasha Atkinson) come looking for him. Safe and settled with adoptive Mum, Kit (Alexis Leighton) Joel’s life is turned upside down when he is confronted by the truth about the mother who gave up Marty so that he could become Joel.

Dorothy Lawrence and Danny Hetherington in Giving Up Marty. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli.

It’s a hard-hitting story which conveys the complexities of adoption reunion for all involved. For Martha, searching is simple. Marty is her son, and blood is thicker than water. Why would he not want to know her? Unless, of course, he’s been fed lies all these years. For Joel, things seem simple at the start too. He was a mistake and Martha gave him up. Why would he want to know her? But something has been set in motion in Joel’s head and he is soon at the offices of The Adoption Society where he is presented with his case file by social-worker, Femi (Ugo Nelson). It’s only a matter of time before he wants to know more about the human side of the harsh facts in the file. Carrot dangled, he ends up meeting Martha in person. But can Joel fit into the family he was taken away from all those years ago? Is it really Marty that Martha wants or is Joel just a substitute for recently deceased birth brother, Vince? And how will he react to Melissa’s shocking revelations about the brother he will never know?

Bartholomew’s writing is filled with dark humour and clearly comes from a personal place. Nothing is sugar coated or twee and plenty will resonate for anyone with experiences of adoption. From the social worker with his hands tied by “process” to the recurring image of a bulging paper file filled with unfeeling descriptions of a child’s early life, it may be “of a different era” but it is far from irrelevant. Though adoption has moved on in some ways, there is still a distinctly uncomfortable rigidity to its structure and processes. And it’s so good to see a provocative piece of writing that allows its audience to question what they think they know about adoption.

Ugo Nelson in Giving Up Marty. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli.

It’s understandably written primarily from the adoptee perspective but with a clear empathy for birth families who are left unable to contact the children they have lost. Although Martha may have “given up” Marty, the truth is not nearly so clear cut. In making this heartbreaking choice, she is confronted with the reality that she may never see him again. And certainly not until he is 18. These days, few children are “relinquished” (another harsh description for such a difficult decision) and “contact” (again not the most cuddly of terms) is typically maintained between birth and adoptive families. But this rarely means more than an annual letter written by the adopters which often (understandably) goes unanswered. So despite advances in some areas of adoption practice, meaningful links between children and their birth families are rarely maintained.

Joel’s ambivalence towards his birth family could be read as an argument in favour of preventing birth families being able to contact adoptees at all but it’s far more nuanced than that. Rather, the thing that sends Joel’s head into a spin is the sudden, unexpected contact and the revelation that everything he thought he knew about his origins is untrue. This is explored artfully in a scene in which Joel explains to Femi that he had always believed himself to have been unwanted because, unlike his sister Bethany whose birth mother had left her a cherished doll, his birth family had not given him anything to show that they cared. Except it turns out that Joel’s family left him with plenty of toys that he never received. His identity as an adoptee has been built upon a misunderstanding of the circumstances by which he came to be adopted. And it’s all come crashing down in an instant. Early on, he speaks of adoptees being conscious of a “shadow self” and feeling like imposters in their own lives. But the more he learns about the family into which he was born, this too feels like “someone else’s story”.

The company of Giving Up Marty. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli.

One thing that is different in modern adoption is the emphasis on the importance of identity and being open about a child’s history. (Our children will never have the experience of being presented with a file of new information about their past. They know it all already. And we will continue to tell them anything new that we learn, in an age-appropriate way.) Despite being an adopter of an older generation (with the play set in the early 1990s), Kit is very much of this mentality. She has always been open with Joel and older sister, Bethany about the fact that they are adopted, and understands that as they get older they may want to find out about their family. But it’s hard for Kit to watch Joel struggle with his feelings about the family he would rather forget while Bethany is rejected by the birth family that she desperately wants to know. We see Kit grapple with feelings of powerlessness and wishing that things had been different, but always retain the sense that she wants to protect her children rather than deny their identity or pretend they are not adopted at all.

It’s a powerful choice to write Kit this way, when it would be all too easy to succumb to the temptation to give her what might be considered more meaty material to work with. Audiences might believe Kit to be underwritten, wondering why she doesn’t express a fear of being rejected in favour of Joel’s birth family or anger that she will never be enough for him (which we see the other way round from Martha). But Bartholomew is – quite rightly – not in the business of tiptoeing around the feelings of adopters. Adoptees often talk of being scared to search for their birth family for fear of upsetting their adoptive family or being made to feel ungrateful. So it’s important that we see the adopter in Giving Up Marty supporting her children’s choices regarding their birth families and being there to pick up the pieces when things don’t go smoothly.

The cast deal brilliantly with the sensitive subject matter. Danny Hetherington’s portrayal of Joel is nuanced and believable, and he has convincing chemistry with all his cast mates. Alexis Leighton’s composed Kit contrasts well with Dorothy Lawrence’s more volatile Martha, while Ugo Nelson is very convincing as a social worker trying to strike the right balance between professionalism and caring. Natasha Atkinson is excellent as Melissa, foul-mouthed and fiery with Femi yet shockingly matter of fact when it comes to sharing her traumatic childhood experiences with Joel.

Natasha Atkinson in Giving Up Marty. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli.

The production that premiered at VAULT Festival (directed by Annie Sutton) is a shortened version of the play and it does show a little in places. The relationships between the characters feel in need of greater exploration, with the abridged running time meaning that things escalate quite quickly. There are also some changes between scenes that feel a little disjointed, particularly the flashback to Joel’s 9th birthday party which seems out of place (although its purpose is clearer from the playtext itself). The penultimate scene is also a little confusing, with the direction and frenetic pacing not making it easy to work out whether characters are meant to be in the same physical space, but this could be easily ironed out. The play feels like a work in progress at present and it would be great to see a full length version which allows more time for such an important topic to be discussed in the detail it deserves.

Regardless, in bringing this story to the stage Karen Bartholomew has certainly achieved what she set out to do. Walking out of the theatre last Thursday, Mummy could overhear people discussing the thought-provoking nature of the production. It was clear that many were surprised by how dark a play about adoption could be and how it had challenged them to think more deeply about the issues raised. Mummy hopes that these conversations continue outside the theatre and that Giving Up Marty finds a new life in future, following today’s announcement that the planned tour has been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles & a Solitary Mitten (aka 3.5 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Giving Up Marty played at VAULT Festival from 10 to 12 March 2020. We received a complimentary press ticket for the performance on 12 March.