Review: The Ballad of Maria Marten, Stephen Joseph Theatre

As Lucy Kirkwood’s, The Welkin plays the National Theatre this winter, so Eastern Angles brings its own take on female solidarity and the powerlessness of women to the fore. The Ballad of Maria Marten follows the life of the murder victim of the same name. The genius of what writer, Beth Flintoff, has done with this script, however is that it is not about the gruesome murder, the trial or about any of the acts of violence committed against Maria, but rather it is about the person. We follow Maria, her friends and her family from childhood to Maria’s death. By the end of the play, the loss of her is felt as potently as if we too were her friends.

The show is performed by an all-female cast, each of whom give incredibly layered performances. Flintoff’s script demands a lot from every actor. Elizabeth Crarer, as Maria, rarely leaves the stage. She ricochets and crumbles, is moral occasionally and illogical often. The characterisation is a note perfect depiction of the rise and fall of a wonderful human being. Other stand out performances come from Sarah Goddard, as Maria’s stepmother, Ann and Suzanne Ahmet as Sarah/Lady Cooke. Goddard provides a picture of grief and madness of Shakespearean proportions, suspending our disbelief as she paces to Maria’s grave in a night gown or imparting kindly wisdom to the younger characters. Ahmet is magical, raucous and powerful, embodying the play’s hopeful spirit with every twitch of her skirt. In truth, each of the women in this production completely inhabit their characters.

Luke Potter’s score is rousing and entirely in keeping with the period. Each song marks a moment of joy or solidarity, mostly coming from the women in tight packed harmonies. With Potter’s music underscoring them, Maria’s costume changes become ceremonies of healing and resuscitation where the others gather round her, clean her up and set her on her feet again. This is one of the many pieces of elegant stage craft with which Hal Chambers has enriched the production. It is a beautifully sculpted production. From a baby’s cry to the appearance of a handy umbrella, every gesture of the show is carefully constructed.

My only misgiving is that the play is a little over-long. I do appreciate that when telling the story of someone’s entire life, it is difficult to cut many details without undermining the integrity of the story. Despite this, the script would have benefited from some streamlining. Also, by virtue of the subject matter, the first and second act were almost entirely different plays, and this makes it a challenging watch for the audience.

In short, The Ballad of Maria Marten is a welcome addition to the current theatrical canon. It is vital, layered and empowered, a beautiful piece of theatre.

The Ballad of Maria Marten is touring until 29 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Eastern Angles website.