The Poisoners’ Pact
(reviewed at The Cut, Halesworth on 11 April)
It’s often said that poison is a woman’s weapon of choice when it comes to killing off the unwanted man, women and children in her life. The 19th century in particular seems to throw up a couple of cases in each decade, some of which are more famous than others.
I confess to not knowing anything about the case of the Burnham Market (Norfolk) poison trial of 1835 before seeing this play. In The Poisoners’ Pact, writers Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence for Stuff of Dreams theatre company have created a piece for three actresses and a musician (Lane in Spence’s production) who take us through the events which culminated in the hanging (in public) of Frances (Fanny) Billing and Catherine (Cat) Frary.
These two village wives are having affairs; the the case of Fanny, many affairs. Joanna Swan plays her as plumply seductive, all pouting lips and come-kiss-me eyes. Kiara Hawker’s Cat is an altogether more brittle, not to say, thoroughly embittered woman, skilled in herb lore by an old wise-woman Hannah Shorten (Jamie-Rose Monk) but now adding a touch of necromancy to her potions and simple spells.
Monk also plays Elizabeth Southgate, a bereaved mother who senses that there is something not quite normal in the way her baby died while in Cat’s care. All this is introduced and interleaved with catchy song and dance numbers in folk ballad style but the central story is grim enough. Plant-derived poisons failing to work on those inconvenient husbands and lovers’ wives, arsenic is added to various cups of tea, broths and stews. Oh yes, and also to dumplings.
This leads to some school of Fanny Craddock cookery demonstrations, including the notorious “here’s some I made earlier” routine. The first half is a little bit slow, but it all picks up when Mary, the wife of Peter – who is Fanny’s current lover – finally succumbs to repeated doses of arsenic. The coroner conducing the inquest is not satisfied, and Elizabeth’s persistence is querying all those deaths finally pays its grisly dividend.
In the condemned cell, Cat and Fanny finally face the reality of wht they have done and the penalty to be paid in the morning. Both Swan and Monk rise to the occasion, Hawker especially, though it is Fanny, hitherto the follower, who will support Cat as they mount the scaffold.
The Poisoners’ Pact can be seen at the Seagull Theatre, Lowstoft on 16 April, the Granary Theatre, Wells-Next-The-Sea on 17 April, the Bank at Eye (18 April), Sedgeford village hall (1 May) and St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth on 2 May.