Cleo Sylvestre as Mary Seacole. Photograph: Cleo Sylvestre
Cleo Sylvestre as Mary Seacole. Photograph: Cleo Sylvestre

Walking into the Rosemary Branch Theatre, I feel instantly welcome. At 5pm the bar is bustling with customers young and old, with artistic director Cleo Sylvestre flashing a fuchsia-lipped smile as she greets each one.

“My friend Cecilia and I have been running the Rosie for 20 years now,” Sylvestre says. “My husband had just died, and Cecil was teaching ballet upstairs. It was really a baptism of fire, neither of us knew what we were doing.”

It seems Sylvestre’s life has been marked by a series of colourful career moves, having worked in music, film and on the West End. She points at a black and white photograph in a corner. It’s her with some “faces you might recognise” – The Rolling Stones, with whom she recorded ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ in 1969. “I had a great time.

The Stones were releasing music that no one had ever heard before, but I thought that rather than just going to loads of gigs, I wanted to be the gig”.

But despite her musical credentials, theatre is her first love, she says. “I love being able to go to the theatre and forget about the outside world for an hour. I think it’s all about being able to bring something to life.”

To mark the Rosie’s 20th anniversary, Sylvestre’s acclaimed one-woman show, The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole is returning to the stage for a short run this month.

Based on the autobiography of the same name, it recounts Jamaican-born Seacole’s experiences of the Crimean War during which she set up a hospital using abandoned metal and driftwood to aid sick and wounded troops.

Whereas Florence Nightingale’s legacy has long been part of the school curriculum, Seacole’s contribution to British history has been largely overlooked.

Sylvestre admits she knew little about her until the 1980s. “I read her autobiography while my children were still very young and thought she was an amazing woman. Initially I wrote it for children. I wanted them to hear her story and get across that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”

Sylvestre is also an ambassador for The Mary Seacole Statue Appeal, whose efforts have finally paid off, with a monument set to be unveiled this spring. It will be the first statue of a named black woman in Britain.

Portraying Seacole’s personality as well as her achievements was vital for Sylvestre. “I think she was quite a complex character; she was tough, she was intrepid. I think she had a very warm heart, but she had a lot of steel to have gone through what she did.

I also think – how can I phrase this without putting her down – that while she mixed with people from all walks of life, she didn’t suffer fools gladly. She could hold her own.”

The play promises to be an opportunity to hear the story of one remarkable woman, told by another.

The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole is at Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Road, N1 3DT from 9-11 March.

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