Polstead

reviewed at the James Hehir Plaza, Ipswich Waterfront on 13 July

Mysteries are multi-faceted affairs. They involve more than the obvious who? why? where? when? questions. Suffolk’s most notorious one is probably that of the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder in 1827.

Most stage versions – and they started as soon as Corder was hanged in 1828 – focus on the melodramatic aspects of the crime. Beth Flintoff’s take on the story is different.

The murder is almost incidental as she focuses on the village itself with all its graduations of social and financial status for local families. This is a rural England much nearer to that of Fielding and Smollett than that of Austen or Allingham.

Parish councils might grumble at the cst of maintaining children born out-of-wedlock but, in an age without contraception, birth was the likely result of regular sexual intercourse. The gentry and the church might disapprove, but farmers needed sons to work the land with them.

So we meet the women villagers of Polstead. A couple have obtained work at “the big house”; most have a back-breaking and soul-destroying régime of domestic chores and field-work. The annual Cherry Fair apart, theirs is a monotonous existence. So girls will be girls, just as boys will act as men can (and do).

Hal Chambers’ direction uses a cast of six actresses to put Polstead before us. Verity Quinn sets a timbered structure at either end of the acting area while two of Maria’s known lovers are subtly played by Bethan Nash and Lucy Grattan – William Corder doesn’t actually appear. Roxanne Palmer’s Phoebe is also a good characterisation.

As Maria, Elizabeth Crarer shows us a girl with ambitions as well as affections while Sarah Goddard as Ann Marten demonstrates the real understanding which develops between Maria and her young stepmother. Lydia Bakelmun glides effortlessly between Lady Cooke (Matthews’ sister) and disgruntled Sarah.

Music haunts this staging, composed by Luke Potter to suggest the timelessness of folk rhythms. Rebecca Randall’s movement sequences flow between the formally choreographed and mimetic. This is a tale of a real place and time far more than just another one of violent death and retribution.

Four star rating.

Polstead continues at the James Hehir Plaza, Ipswich Waterfront until 15 July with matinée performances on 14 and 15 July. It plays also at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green, Peterborough (18-21 July), Manor Farm Barn, Semer (26-28 July) and Debach Airfield, Clopton, Woodbridge (31 July-5 August).

 

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