In 1827 Maria Marten, a young woman from Suffolk, was murdered after arranging to meet her lover, William Corder, at the Red Barn in Polstead. The Red Barn Murder captured the attention of people from across the country and Corder was subsequently found guilty of the killing, but in the years that followed the focus has always been on the grim details of the murder. The Ballad of Maria Marten, which has stopped off at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre as part of its current tour, seeks to change that by focusing on Maria herself – the woman, rather than the victim.
Theatre company Eastern Angles prides itself on bringing to life ‘regional stories and hidden histories’ and has teamed up with writer Beth Flintoff to rewrite the tale of the Red Barn murder. The story has been told countless times over the years, but The Ballad of Maria Marten puts a different spin on it, putting women front and centre to explore of Maria’s life, loves and friendships. The show shares some similarities with The Welkin, which is currently playing at London’s National Theatre. As well as being based in East Anglia, both shows bring to light the struggles of women in history, and are an effective reminder that issues around their class and role in society haven’t necessarily been relegated to the past.
Flintoff’s tight script combines with Luke Potter’s compositions to produce a delightful production that really captures the imagination. Despite the real-life tragedy, this is not a story of doom and gloom and Flintoff succeeds in creating a finely balanced show. Though there are poignant moments when Maria loses a child and has to walk away from love, there are also times of joy and laughter. Scenes with Maria and her friends discussing their ‘secret club’ and hilariously ineffective contraception methods bring added warmth and serve to make the emotional moments more powerful.
There’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the portrayal of violence against women in the arts and media, and Flintoff avoids falling into this trap with the decision not to feature William Corder in the show. Though he is mentioned, the focus remains on Maria throughout, and the show is more effective for it. If anything, The Ballad of Maria Marten is an empowering tale of female friendship and Director Hal Chambers, who ensures that the story transitions between time periods smoothly, succeeds in emphasising this, bringing the women together at various points in the show. It’s during Maria’s costume changes, when the ensemble help her dress, fix her hair and clean her scrapes, that this supportive environment is most evident.
The all-female cast well together, their camaraderie not only believable, but their harmonies beautiful as they give life to Potter’s music which, like the story itself, switches from more upbeat, light-hearted tunes to more haunting melodies. The team of six are led by Elizabeth Crarer, who enchants as Maria. She works tirelessly, remaining on stage for most of the production and leads the audience on a rollercoaster journey as they share in Maria’s highs and lows. Crarer’s enthusiasm is infectious, her storytelling strong and captivating, and you can’t help but warm to her straight away. Sarah Goddard also impresses as Ann Marten, Maria’s step-mother, particularly as she’s haunted by nightmares following her step-daughter’s disappearance; while Susanna Jennings and Emma Denly both succeed in effectively portraying the only male characters in the story as well as female roles.
An enchanting and moving production, The Ballad of Maria Marten is a wonderfully creative show which offers an original look at a real-life murder mystery. With excellent performances, a compelling script and beautiful melodies, this is a show that’s not to be missed.
The Ballad of Maria Marten plays at the New Wolsey Theatre until Saturday 22 February and tours until 29 February.
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew