Tag Archives: Hal Chambers

Henry I


Reading Abbey Ruins

HENRY I  at Reading Abbey Ruins


Henry I

“a stand-out exemplar for other locally-rooted companies wishing to make drama that speaks compellingly to their audiences”


When Game of Thrones and other big budget spectaculars grab the headlines and audiences, how can 900 year old stories be brought to the stage in a way that will speak to modern audiences? This is the challenge with which Reading based company Rabble have been engaged since their founding in 2012.

This latest production is their biggest yet. Based on a show that premiered in 2016, it follows the life of King Henry I of England from the moment his father William the Conqueror died in 1087, to his own death 48 years later. This is raw and visceral theatre. The writing is not cod historical but vivid and gripping.

Eleventh century lives were short and men’s war-making was brutal. But this play is also feminist to its core, placing women at its heart, both in casting women actors in male roles and in depicting the pivotal roles women played in the story.

Rabble’s vision is also community-based and often site specific. Over 500 members of the local community were involved in bringing this epic to the stage. It sits in a sequence of linked history plays the company have developed. They appear amongst the professionals in the show and continue to be involved in workshops around the play which tours to Winchester and the Actor’s Church in London after its Reading run. In Reading it is performed in the ruins of the great abbey Henry I built to expiate his memory, and where he lies buried. There’s a further frisson. The final scene is performed on the very spot where the events depicted occurred.

Beth Flintoff’s Henry I uses a rich variety of story-telling techniques to bring a great swathe of history to dazzling life. Characters speak directly to their audience about their future. Climactic crowd scenes play out in slow motion with compelling lighting effects by designer Michael Brenkley. Many of the costumes by Sarah Jane Booth are a lush riot of satin and velvet and her spare set suits the full-on and physical drama to a tee.

Amongst an outstanding cast, Toby W Davies is excellent as Henry I. Whilst some other characters occasionally veer close to parody, he gives a compellingly real performance of vulnerability and struggle amongst all the rabble-rousing. Georgie Fellows is his queen and Mabel. Like the exceptional Amy Conachan (Adela Countess of Blois), she gives a blisteringly feisty performance of a woman at the heart of the action.

Greg Barnett is a wonderful embodiment of lip-smacking evil as Robert de Belleme. Mark Middleton is a peevishly inadequate brother to Henry and has some moments of fine comedy. Gabrielle Sheppard cuts a swaggering dash as William Rufus and William Atheling. Anjelica Serra gives an equally energetic and compelling performance in this high octane show that delighted the first night crowd. Joseph Black has huge stage presence as Bishop Roger and Conran.

Many other performers give wonderfully energetic and committed performances in this brilliant show which is a warmly recommended triumph for Rabble. It is also a stand-out exemplar for other locally-rooted companies wishing to make drama that speaks compellingly to their audiences. Congratulations to Director Hal Chambers for bringing this production to such electrifying life.



Reviewed on 15th June 2023

by David Woodward

Photography by Alex Brenner


Further dates:

12th – 15th July 2023
Winchester Great Hall, Winchester

20th – 22nd July 2023
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London




Previously reviewed by David:


Hedda Gabler | ★★★★★ | Reading Rep Theatre | February 2023
Cybil Service | ★★★★ | VAULT Festival 2023 | January 2023
Barefoot in the Park | ★★★★ | The Mill at Sonning | July 2022
Spike | ★★★★ | Watermill Theatre Newbury | January 2022
Dorian | ★★★★ | Reading Rep Theatre | October 2021


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The Ballad of Maria Marten

The Ballad of Maria Marten


Wilton’s Music Hall

The Ballad of Maria Marten

The Ballad of Maria Marten

Wilton’s Music Hall

Reviewed – 15th February 2022



An undoubtedly compelling and timely story, told with a fine balance of edge and heartiness


“It’s been a year since I died and still nobody’s found me.”

There’s a reason murders are generally told from the perspective of the murderer, obviously because the victim isn’t there to tell it. So Beth Flintoff’s The Ballad of Maria Marten is necessarily told from the grave. Based on a true story, Maria Marten herself guides us through the loves, heartbreaks and societal failings that led to her violent death.

I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of Maria Marten, or the Red Barn murder as it’s otherwise known. Particularly so as that’s where my partner is from, and apparently that’s what the tiny village of Polstead is largely known for. That and cherries.

In fact, it’s been a popular story since the days of the trial in 1827, with songs written about it- one by Tom Waits- and multiple TV, film and radio adaptations. But under Hal Chambers’ direction, this production has taken a lot of risks in order to contemporise, the first and most overt being there are no men in the cast. Not only that, whilst Maria’s former lovers are played as bit-parts by the all-female cast, William Corder doesn’t even get a look-in, remaining an off-stage character throughout. This is especially interesting because, as with most tales of murder, adaptations and retellings have been largely focused on him over her.

Accents are all over the shop which does get to be quite distracting- there’s a little west country, a little generic northern, some south London, even a bit of Irish, often combined in a single sentence. But the performances themselves are generally strong. The cast at their most powerful as a chorus: As the title suggests, the story is punctuated with ballads, sung in tight six-part harmonies. These are some of the tenderest and most affecting moments, giving the sense that whilst women like Maria have been largely lost to history, there is in their place a kind of communal voice of mourning. This is amplified by synchronised intakes of breath that feel as though Maria’s plight belongs to a multitude.

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about adults playing children, and there’s a lot of it going round at the moment- The Book of Dust at the Bridge Theatre comes to mind, with a twelve-year old being played by a twenty-something. I do see the necessity in this case: they’re children for very little of the story, so it’d be a waste to double the cast. Regardless, it’s near impossible to do well and feels a bit embarrassing.

Verity Quinn’s costumes and set are kept fairly traditional: a dilapidated barn wall looms over the stage throughout and the cast all sport bonnets and aprons. The story’s contemporary slant generally sits comfortably against this conventional backdrop, but there is some anachronism that doesn’t feel quite right. One of the characters, for example, is an empowered woman who loves sex and whose children each have a different father. I understand the impetus to modernise in this way, but it feels particularly bizarre given that Maria suffers the harsh judgement of the village for having children out of wedlock herself.

The ending too feels uncomfortably positive, where a more truthfully bleak conclusion would have better served the point of the story. That being said, it’s hard to keep an audience hooked when they know from the get who was murdered and, half-way through by whom, which this production does. An undoubtedly compelling and timely story, told with a fine balance of edge and heartiness.



Reviewed by Miriam Sallon

Photography by Mike Kwasniak


The Ballad of Maria Marten

Wilton’s Music Hall until 19th February then UK Tour continues. See www.mariamarten.com for details


Recently reviewed at this venue:
Roots | ★★★★★ | October 2021
The Child in the Snow | ★★★ | December 2021


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