Tag Archives: Wilton’s Music Hall

The Ballad of Maria Marten

The Ballad of Maria Marten

★★★½

Wilton’s Music Hall

The Ballad of Maria Marten

The Ballad of Maria Marten

Wilton’s Music Hall

Reviewed – 15th February 2022

★★★½

 

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

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

The Child in the Snow

The Child in the Snow

★★★

Wilton’s Music Hall

The Child in the Snow

The Child in the Snow

Wilton’s Music Hall

Reviewed – 2nd December 2021

★★★

 

“audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium”

 

The Child in the Snow is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story, and this year’s holiday season show at Wilton’s Music Hall. In keeping with the tradition of presenting other ghost stories for the winter season—such as the perennially successful A Christmas Carol—one can readily see why playwright Piers Torday would choose this kind of material. And yet, adapting The Old Nurse’s Story demonstrates that it is no easy feat to craft a ghost story for the stage. In all other respects, The Child in the Snow is a clever and resourceful production—the set (designed by Tom Piper), lighting (Jess Bernberg), composition and sound effects (Ed Lewis) and the video effects (Hayley Egan)—provide just the right chilly atmosphere for this haunting narrative.

Let’s take a closer look at the source material for The Child in the Snow. Piers Torday has written a very helpful and informative article, Gaskell’s Ghosts, in the programme. And thank you, Wilton’s, for providing a free programme in the form of a printed newspaper. Torday provides some useful background about The Old Nurse’s Story. There’s also a reference to Mamilius, the ill fated young prince of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a lovely connection to The Child in the Snow, because Gaskell’s story is also about an ill fated child, and it is also set in winter. But there the similarity ends, because, as we know, Mamilius never gets to finish his tale.

The Child in the Snow

Gaskell’s story begins in a present where main character’s children are listening to a story about their mother’s lonely, friendless childhood in a forbidding mansion decaying on the Northumbrian Moors. This is a technique that works well in novels—telling a story set in the past—and it can also be successfully adapted for film and television, using flashbacks. But the theatre presents a different problem. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to use flashbacks, and the narrative needs to be set in the present (at least from the protagonist’s point of view). It needs to be linked to a goal that the main character is trying to achieve. Torday’s solution in The Child in the Snow is to update the narrative. Our heroine, Hester Thornton, is a World War One combat nurse who has lost her childhood memories through trauma. Her goal is to try to retrieve them by hiring a medium named Estelle Leonard. Hester brings Estelle back to her childhood home in an attempt to remember. So far, so good. But the set up for this situation requires a lot of storytelling to establish the backstory. And the backstory is the heart of the tale. Just as important, the trick with ghost plays is how to reveal the ghosts, and when. It’s analogous to the problem of putting a gun on the stage.

When we think about A Christmas Carol, or Hamlet, or even Macbeth, we can see that the ghosts in all these stories have an important function in the drama. They tend to appear right at the beginning of the story, and/or at a crucial moment in the plot. By contrast, the plot of The Child in the Snow has a leisurely beginning that feels as though it belongs to an entirely different, though just as powerful, story. I won’t provide spoilers, but by the end of The Child in the Snow, audiences should be able to see for themselves the difference between this show, and other plays with ghosts in them.

The Child in the Snow gives its two performers, Debbie Chazen and Safiyya Ingar, plenty to do. They are ably directed by Justin Audibert. Chazen takes on several roles (sometimes as a medium channeling her spirit guides, or else simply stepping into another role with the help of a costume piece and/or a different accent.) She also provides some delightful comic relief.
Ingar has the tougher task, in some respects, playing Hester Thornton. The role of Thornton is simply overwhelmed with narration. And there are really two parts to Thornton’s story that don’t link together all that well. The story of the lonely child, and that of the combat nurse. Despite the problematic set up, though, The Child in the Snow has plenty of blood chilling moments. But when all is said and done, The Child in the Snow takes one step too many away from the haunted old home of its source material.

It’s always a pleasure to spend an evening at the Wilton’s Music Hall, and audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium. Some may come away feeling, however, that reading Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story around a crackling fire in a creaky old house, is a better way to get the full phantom. And they’d be right, because The Old Nurse’s Story is a great ghost tale, perfect for the season, and deserves to be better known.

 

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Nobby Clark

 


The Child in the Snow

Wilton’s Music Hall until 31st December

 

Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021:
Roots | ★★★★★ | October 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews