Writer: Beth Flintoff
Director: Hal Chambers
The murder of Maria Marten in the early Nineteenth Century has been a source of fascination and intrigue ever since it became a headline news story and a staple of Victorian Melodrama. Murdered by her lover the remains of Maria’s body were discovered hidden under the floor of the infamous red barn where she was killed. This tragic tale which bares all the hallmarks of a classic crime drama has spawned several films, plays and folk songs, most of which have played up the gruesome elements of the story. In this excellent version written by Beth Flintoff, the dramatic thrills are still very much present, but it is Maria’s story and not the hysteria surrounding her death that takes centre stage.
Performed by an all-female cast, (Maria’s murder and murderer are never shown), the play is for the most part a celebration of Maria’s life, the women who loved her and the rural community that nurtured them. Weaving music, movement, and magical storytelling, this beautifully written play enables the real Maria to emerge triumphant and her story to be powerfully retold.
From an early age Maria’s imagination and zest for life single her out as being different and this brings her to the attention of a series of unsuitable male suitors all of whom are wealthy and entitled. As one of her friends tells her, “they get what they want, change their minds and break your heart.” That Maria and her friends are victims of exploitation and abuse is clear and although the events portrayed in the play are almost two hundred years old, given the steep rise in reported cases of violence against women they take on an added poignancy and urgency.
At the heart of the play is the tender and moving relationship between Maria and her stepmother, Anne. These scenes provide the beating heart of the drama, and the performances of Elizabeth Crarer as Maria and Sarah Goddard as Anne are wonderfully nuanced and compelling. In many years of watching performances at the Coliseum this reviewer has rarely seen two actresses play roles with such conviction, breadth of emotion, and versatility. They are joined on stage by four other actresses to create a formidable ensemble that deliver an energetic and hugely enjoyable performance.
Director Hal Chambers cleverly uses Verity Quinn’s wood beam clad set to present a variety of different locations, including the often-featured red barn and handles with great skill the changes in the play’s emotion, tone, and mood. Added dynamism is given to the staging by Zoe Spurr’s excellent lighting which succeeds in being beautiful and eerily haunting in equal measure. Maria’s story and Nineteenth-Century rural England are exquisitely brought to life by Luke Potter’s arrangements of period ballads which are superbly sung by the ensemble cast.
This absorbing and riveting production asks many searching questions about women’s rights and domestic abuse, as the performance comes to an end powerful chant of “We will never be silenced again,” speak powerfully and prophetically across the Centuries. The Coliseum is to be congratulated for programming this stunning and thought-provoking production which has been brought to Oldham by the acclaimed Ipswich-based Eastern Angles Theatre Company. It is highly recommended.
Runs until Saturday 26 March