Writers: Amy Rosenthal, Tamsin Fessey &Lynne Forbes
Directors: Tamsin Fessey &Lynne Forbes
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
There is no getting away from the gallows in this production, it is there throughout the evening. The fate of Martha Brown is foretold and we are not going to be allowed to forget it. The noose that eventually hangs her may be variously a washing line, horse harness, train track and even a maypole. But it stays on set throughout as a ghoulish reminder that this story is not going to end well.
Martha Brown was the last woman to be hung in Dorset, said to be the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Produced by Angel Exit Theatre, The Ballad of Martha Brown takes us back to the beginning of Martha’s story to show us the harsh reality of her life and what led her to execution.
This is a very original piece of theatre. Angel Exit’s approach is very physical, drawing on traditions of clown, chorus and buffoonery together with music, song and a great story these combine to give us both a humorously entertaining, yet heart wrenching story.
Before we even enter the auditorium, the cast playing the spectacle-hungry mob, are urging us to get a good seat for the hanging. The high energy cast stroll through the assembling audience inviting us in and cranking up the anticipation levels. Once in the theatre it is tempting to sit on the edge of the stage, throw potatoe peel and rotting cabbage and join the jeering crowd.
Portentous signs are there from the beginning. The mob characters immediately morph into undead once the show starts. Their pale, ghoulish faces pop up from every crack and corner of the set. Their zombie-like movements claw and grasp to claim Martha as one of their own before her story unfolds.
Transforming from undead, the five cast members portray the many characters in Martha’s life. Martha’s story is told through humorous ballads, but always with a vein of darkness.
The set is particularly ingenious. One moment it is a courthouse, the next gallows, vegetable garden or milking parlour. The cast skilfully intertwine their movements with finely tuned choreography and comic inventiveness. One moment being milked as cows with rubber gloves for udders, the next making babies out of dough.
Amy Rosenthal, writing with Lynne Forbes and Tamsin Fessey, produces a skilfully compassionate yet humourous story set almost entirely to music. All the cast deserve a mention. Lynne Forbes plays Martha with sympathy. Tamsin Fessey puts in a terrific performance as she writhes and sings her way through the evening. William Wolfe Hogan should get particular mention for his performance as the hangman, singing his way from London on the train. Simon Caroll Jones and Morag Cross complete the cast.
We follow Martha’s tragic and difficult life until she fatefully meets the young John Brown. She falls in love, and with noteworthy lighting change, loses 20 years in an instant. All starts well but soon jealousy and paranoia drive a wedge between the couple with fatal consequences. At the time, the papers reported Martha as a monstrous murderess. In this version we see her as a victim of physical violence and emotional abuse. Provoked to a haze of rage and grasping an axe to defend herself before their short marriage reaches a gruesome conclusion.
It is at this stage of the evening that some weakness creeps into the production. The tension caused by the breakdown is understood but not fully developed and we feel rushed to towards the tragic crisis. But this should not detract too much from what is otherwise a great evening.
Reviewed on 4th June 2014