REVIEW: The Ballad of Maria Marten, New Wolsey Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Beth Flintoff’s play The Ballad of Maria Marten at the New Wolsey Theatre. Ipswich.

Ballad of Maria Marten review
The cast of The Ballad of Maria Marten. Photo: Mike Kwasniak

The Ballad of Maria Marten.
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
19 March 2022
5 Stars
Ballad of Maria Marten tour information

Famed as a melodrama during the Music Hall era, Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn had all the classics of a salacious crime thriller. In the summer of 1827, Maria waits for her lover in the red barn, intending to run away and start a new life. A year later her body is found by her desperate stepmother. In Beth Flintoff’s powerful, extraordinary play. Maria is given her voice back and the story is told from her point of view and by the women who struggled to survive in the poverty of the countryside, where winter is a challenge to get through. The direction by Hal Chambers is inventive and strong, with a flawless ensemble bringing the location, the era, and the story to vivid, unforgettable life. This is Eastern Angles at their best, the company further cementing their reputation as East Anglian storytellers.

Ballad of Maria Marten review
The cast of The Ballad of Maria Marten. Photo. Mike Kwasniak

Elizabeth Crarer is outstanding as Maria, strong, caring, loving being part of The Hazard Club, the secret gang she and her friends are part of. She speaks initially to us as a ghost, then literally brings Maria to life, and charts her story from carefree child to caregiver, to mother, through loss of her children, and the love that erodes her personality and mind. It is a moving portrayal, and her distressing journey is handled skilfully and subtly, making it more powerful. Sarah Goddard brings the challenges of poor rural life to the fore as Ann Marten, who brims with love and seeks the truth. Jessica Dives has quiet judgment in the role of Phoebe, reflecting the disapproval of the village, and Honora Kamen both challenges societal restrictions as Sarah, then reinforces the class system as Lady Cooke- Maria will never marry herself out of her station in life. Bethan Nash and Susie Barret cross-gender superbly, Nash as Peter Matthews, who cares for Maria but is above her station, Barrett creepingly realistic as Thomas Corder, the forerunner of her murderer, William Corder.

The Ballad of Maria Marten tour
The cast of The Ballad of Maria Marten. Photo: Mike Kwasniak

There are so many genius aspects to this production. The music by Luke Potter celebrates the friendship of women, the tenderness, the struggles and the laughter, and is a character in itself. The movement by Rebecca Randell brings energy and solidarity onto the stage, the rustling of Maria’s skirts not only reflecting her mental state but also the back-breaking work of the countryside. Most powerful is that we do not see a representation of William Corder, so we project onto him the faces of men who kill women, right throughout the centuries down to Metropolitan Police Officers. It’s powerful stuff, but also, strangely, uplifting, as the surviving women set fire to the Old Red Barn to give their dead friend power and voice. It’s a clarion call that goes beyond the locality of its Suffolk location, and is a play not to be missed.

The Ballad of Maria Marten Tour continues. The full tour schedule can be seen here.

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