The Ballad of Maria Marten – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
By Charlotte Oliver, February 2020
Almost two centuries ago, the body of a murdered woman was discovered in a Suffolk barn. The story was brought to public attention by widespread news coverage on a scale rare for that time, and a grim fascination for details surrounding the murder has continued to this day. Beth Flintoff’s play (performed by Eastern Angles in association with Matthew Linley Creative Projects and the Stephen Joseph Theatre) examines the events through the eyes of the victim, Maria Marten. This is something of a first as the re-telling of the tale has usually taken the male perspective, in what could be seen as a sad echo of a working class woman’s lack of status in 19th century society.
The play opens with the murdered Maria pulling the audience straight in with the arresting line, ‘It’s been a year since I died’. From there, Maria’s circle of lifelong friends swoop in and lovingly wash away her fatal wounds, transforming her back into a young girl. We then follow the story of her life up until the fateful moment. Events along the way give a fascinating insight into rural Suffolk life in the 1820s (and its many parallels with today), and lead us to understand exactly why and how this intelligent, strong woman ended up in the barn on that fateful evening, dying at the hands of the man she was expecting to marry.
“Sense of hope and strength”
Hal Chamber’s direction delivers a play that is dynamic and fast-paced; from the first moment the action bursts onto the stage, even before the house lights dim, we are enthralled. The six-strong cast, who play a total of nine parts between them, are Suzanne Ahmet, Elizabeth Crarer, Emma Denly, Jessica Dives, Sarah Goddard and Susanna Jennings, and they are all exceptional. Their performances are gutsy, heartfelt and deeply moving, sliding effortlessly between delivering Flintoff’s beautifully written script and singing the close harmonies of Potter’s beguiling songs.
Having an all-female cast (and one as accomplished as this) gives huge power to the piece and, despite the main story, a sense of hope and strength that we see played out perfectly in the final scene. There is incredible warmth in the ensemble playing and indeed, to the production as a whole – the elements all work supportively and complement each other down to the smallest detail.
The set is kept to a minimum with a handful of large props that work alongside abrupt changes in lighting and sound to indicate a new scene. These quick changes maintain the pace of the story as we move inexorably towards its conclusion, our sense of dread compounded by a repeated sound motif that ominously builds. The costumes root us in 1820s Suffolk along with all that represents for our characters, and the movement, as well as the music, are a welcome nod to the folk tradition of the region. I particularly enjoyed the obvious story-telling devices (the row of old-fashioned footlights, the actors moving the minimal set in full view, the live sound effects including an impressive horse snicker) and the way they didn’t distract but served to absorb us further into the action.
This is a gem of a production and, whilst I am loathe to separate out any one person from what is clearly such a team effort, it would be wrong not to acknowledge Elizabeth Crarer’s stunning performance as Maria. She brings to life a character who is complex, brave and utterly believable, and carries us with her throughout the twists and turns of her life to her horrible death. The standing ovation awarded to the company was richly deserved.
images: Tony Bartholomew