Eastern Angles/Matthew Linley/Stephen Joseph Theatre
March 22-26, 2022; 2hr 25min (also Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 29-April 2)
Victims are, if you think about it, rarely believed to be more interesting than their killers.
We all know the names and possibly the hideous crimes of the Ted Bundys and Wayne Gacys of recent history, but can you name even one of the many people they murdered?
Eastern Angles’ admirable revival of its own 2018 production of the famous Suffolk “murder in the red barn” story is occasionally touted as a “feminist” retelling of a story that has appeared many times over the past two centuries in print, stage and film forms.
Viewers of the first half of this strong-minded musical play might be convinced that what they are actually seeing is just a quirky version of the story in which Maria Marten rather than William Corder – her killer – is front and centre . Not feminist but feminine, with a six-strong all-woman cast.
But in the second half the work takes on a different, decidedly pro-female life, with much to say about the inequities between the sexes then and now – and also, startlingly, about the way men and women interact emotionally; how normally level-headed – and in the case of Maria even headstrong and independent – women can sometimes be blinded into an idea that a lover is their only friend, and that they should accept blame for something the lover has done – “gaslighted”, we call it these days.
Writer Beth Flintoff perhaps a goes a little overboard with this idea, making not only Maria but also a couple of her friends victims of the same suggestive and abusive behaviour. But her central description of Maria going from strong carer, hard worker and loyal friend to paranoid, mistrustful and convinced by her lover that she has harmed and then killed their child, is a powerful one many women might recognise – so much so that the production’s programme offers resources on its website to anyone enduring the same sort of toxic relationship.
This all comes within director Hal Chambers's cleverly-told story, partly told by the dead Maria, featuring atmospheric music and evocative singing by the six cast members – Elizabeth Crarer as Maria, with Hanora Kamen, Susie Barrett, Jessica Dives, Sarah Goddard and Bethan Nash sharing other male and female roles.
We start with Maria as a 10 year old – a child looking after her family following the death of her mother. Later we see the book-loving girl interact with people supposedly above her station, forming relationships and having children with Corder’s younger brother and the brother of the lady of the manor, before falling passionately for the previously-absent William.
Maria is portrayed as fully fleshed-out, smart and canny enough to make friends in local society’s higher echelons, but still falls foul of the vile (and unseen) Corder, who fools everyone into thinking him kind and generous while he steals Maria’s money, flirts with his staff and accuses her of harming the baby he is keen to keep under wraps.
It’s a sad and believable scenario, and while the way it is told here might not become the most popular version of the story, it is certainly the most powerful, bringing a hoary old melodrama fully back into the modern dramatic mainstream.
Info and tickets here
More about the play here