Wilton’s Music Hall – until 19 February then touring until 2 April
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The trial and execution of William Corder for the murder of Maria Marten caused a sensation, with thousands showing morbid curiosity, and souvenir hunters removing pieces of Maria’s gravestone and the barn in which she was murdered, and her body hidden. Beth Flintoff’s play begins with Maria, bloody and ghostly, describing her death but wanting to share the story of her life. What follows is a moving retelling of Maria’s short life and the injustices faced by women in the 19th century.
Flintoff doesn’t shy from the hardships of country life for poor families, and the group of friends in young Maria’s Hazard Club face many hazards as they grow up with no money, no rights and no contraceptives. The double standards of the women bearing all the shame and responsibility when having a child out of wedlock while the men rack it up to experience are laid bare as the girls mature and men take interest. Only two of these men are portrayed onstage – the fathers of two of Maria’s children – Thomas Corder (older brother of her murderer) and Peter Matthews. William Corder is never seen, but the two previous relationships need to be seen to understand why Maria fell under William’s influence. His gaslighting of Maria will make your blood boil, especially as Maria herself narrates his actions whilst blaming herself; and the gradual isolation from her friends and family, and their attempts to get through to her, are painful to watch. Things don’t get much better for the women after her body is eventually found and the trial begins, as their voices and testimonies go unheeded. Flintoff gives the women one last act of defiance and sisterhood, with shades of Emilia, but with a greater sense of urgency that leaves Maria’s ghost smiling in serene approval.
This doesn’t, in essence, make for an uplifting show, but the inclusion of Luke Potter’s hauntingly evocative music and songs create magical moments of dance, joy and love. Amongst the dark narrative, director Hal Chambers highlights plenty of silliness and gallows humour – mostly from Hanora Kamen as Sarah Stowe, unapologetic and defiant as the villagers judge her, and Susie Barrett as Lucy Baalham, god-fearing and jealous of Maria. Elizabeth Crarer is magnetic as Maria – whether incandescent with love or in the depths of despair as her reality is rewritten by Calder, Crarer gives Maria a sense of wild, untameable energy which makes Calder’s actions even more heinous.
This emotional story of Maria Marten’s life is part folk tale, part social commentary, and completely absorbing – a lyrical and exuberant show that will haunt you.