Writer: Harriet Madeley
Director: Madelaine Moore
Verbatim theatre done right can be one of the rawest, most thought-provoking styles of theatre out there. Based on the words of real people, it’s factual, it’s usually got a pretty interesting subject and you can learn, while also being entertained. It requires a lot of work, a lot of research and a lot of passion and done wrong, can be excruciatingly painful for all involved. Thankfully there’s a reason up-and-coming theatre company Crowded Room are award-winning – their latest production Edith providing captivating and challenging material that leaves audiences challenging history and questioning just how far we have come in 100 years.
Developed with women at HMP Styal, the production follows a trial that split the nation. Edith Thompson was one of the last women in the UK to be executed, after being found guilty of her husband’s murder in 1922. While it was indeed Frederick Bywaters, her love interest, who stabbed him as he walked home, Edith found herself under the spotlight as her love letters were used as evidence to sway the male-dominated jury and convince them that she incited him to kill.
From the moment the play starts, the audience are addressed as the jury, giving them the opportunity to really tread in their footsteps, to hear the evidence as they heard it and to ultimately make their own judgement call as to whether the guilty verdict should have ever happened, or at least have been overturned. This has been created from real transcripts, so it’s as real as it’s going to get, and while it has been dramatised for entertainment value, what you see has all come from what has been said in court.
Director Madelaine Moore and writer Harriet Madeley, have done a fantastic job of making sure this production, with all its detail and underlying questioning, doesn’t become boring. The trial is injected with scenes from the lives of the protagonists, playing out what has been heard in court and the screens at the back of the stage also help add another dimension, playing out the love letters via video, rather than just being spoken, adding animation to enhance a scene and using them to help the audience process information, such as names or definitions. They have brought the trial into the 21st century and also managed to inject a little bit of humour, to break away from the largely serious content – sparking a laugh at moments such as asking the audience (or jury) to please switch off their mobile phones.
The set and costume designer, Sascha Gilmour, also plays a pivotal role of keeping things simple, while also saying a thousand words. Edith wears red from the moment she enters the stage and the one stage block is dominated by the only male actor in the production. The small and bare set suits the smaller environment of The Studio Theatre at The Lowry, creating a more intimate atmosphere that could easily be lost in any bigger venue.
Each actor bar Edith (Ivy Corbin) has multiple roles to play. They each have a lead part, but then flit to become the various witnesses that gave evidence throughout the controversial trial. There are no complex costume changes to symbolise each character, but rather characterisation and accents are used to differentiate between each role, with the help of the aforementioned screens as well. As a 90 minute piece, with no interval, but some scattered three minute recesses for the jury to reflect, this is a demanding ask for the cast of just five. But Corbin, Peyvand Sadeghian (Freddy), Mark Knightley (Percy), Rose-Marie Christian (Prosecution) and Harriet Madeley (Defence) don’t miss a beat, keeping the audience’s attention, despite the lack of conventional interval.
Crowded Room tell stories that need to be told, that perhaps haven’t had enough limelight and that challenge you on what is right and wrong. And Edith is no different.- a well-written, well-rehearsed and well-executed (pardon the pun) production, this company have once again proven that they are one to watch.
Runs until 4 February 2023.