Writers: Amy Rosenthal, Tamsin Fessey &Lynne Forbes
Directors: Tamsin Fessey &Lynne Forbes
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
“Are you here for the hanging?” the audience is asked, as we make our way into the auditorium. And indeed we are, because Angel Exit Theatre’s latest production is based around the life and times of Martha Brown, the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset in 1856.
The characters we first meet are wraiths from beyond the grave, white faced and hollow-eyed. They take us back to the beginning of Martha’s story; to the time before being branded a monstrous murderess, when she is but a poor milkmaid who dreams of bettering herself. Angel Exit’s inventive humour is in evidence from the outset, with bloated rubber gloves milked as udders, and bread dough kneaded on the kitchen table before being transformed into a baby or two. The hangman’s noose is omnipresent, centre stage in the set consisting of ropes and wooden platforms, but also used instead of ribbons in the maypole, a foreshadowing of Martha’s dance of death.
In this original score, there are ballads aplenty; a mix of the traditional and more contemporary, usually with a gruesome twist. As the story of Martha’s first marriage unfolds, she learns to read and write but is forced by circumstances to take a position looking after two farming brothers. There she might happily have lived out her days, had not the dashing young John Brown, many years her junior, swaggered into view.
With trademark physicality, the wraiths transform into other characters; John’s mother, his lover, Martha’s priest and her jailer. They also act as a chorus, oozing their way out of crannies and cupboards, moving the furniture around and keeping up a running commentary. Each one has their own story too, but is reminded they really shouldn’t be telling it right now.
Black comedy runs through the veins of this production, one of the highlights being the song of the stovepipe-hatted hangman William Calcraft (played with great verve by William Wolfe Hogan), as he makes his way from distant London to Dorchester to carry out the hanging. There may yet still be time for a reprieve, but he hopes not as this will mean he only earns half of his fee.
Lynne Forbes has great gravitas as Martha, although it’s difficult to perceive any lightness which would make her whirlwind romance with John Brown (Simon Carroll Jones) more believable. Their later, volatile relationship is convincing though, but perhaps its ultimate failure too quickly realised. The characters are not quite developed enough for the audience to really engage (despite a telling interaction with the falsely accused horse) in the full tragedy of Martha’s demise.
A young Thomas Hardy witnessed and was disturbed by Martha’s hanging, writing how “the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.” Particularly affecting is the appearance here of Tess Durbeyfield (Tamsin Fessey), as she eats strawberries and walks alongside Martha’s fate.
In The Ballad of Martha Brown, Angel Exit have devised a well paced piece of theatre, full of lovely moments drawn from their Dorset surroundings. With its lively blend of physicality, song and gallows humour, this vividly told story may not always bring out the full poignancy of Martha’s difficult life and cruel death, but it never fails to entertain.
Reviewed on 28th May 2014