by Chris Bond.

Queen’s Theatre Billet Lane RM11 1QT To 20 November 2010.
Tue-Sat 8pm Mat 6, 11 Nov 2.30pm.
Audio-described/BSL Signed 6 Nov 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.

TICKETS: 01708 443333.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 1 November.

Much Baa and little humbug.
Maidens get maltreated in melodrama. And melodrama’s been mistreated for ages – at least Victorian stage melodrama, though while it’s been mocked, parodied, derided its qualities keep coming to screens near all of us in newer, tougher guises.

But dramatist Chris Bond’s taken two famous melodramas seriously. His Sweeney Todd started Stephen Sondheim’s path towards a serious psychological study of murderous revenge, while this version (written 20 years ago for Croydon Warehouse) of a famous 1827 murder in Polstead, Suffolk may begin as smut and giggles but develops into something far more rewarding.

Initially it seems archetypical melodrama: reckless young squire impregnates village maid, kills her to avoid disgrace; gets caught and is hanged. But Polstead’s Maria was no innocent, and Bond’s second half swings things round with a hefty dose of plot and a new character so incredible she ought to be removed from the stage in the interests of probability.

Instead of which we hang on her every word as if she were explaining the body in the library (in fact there are several bodies in her account). It’s partly Christine Holman’s performance, demanding attention by her precise tones, spoken from behind pereptive spectacles, as she effortlessly dominates others on stage.

And partly the way Matt Devitt’s production has eased us into connivance with the earlier frolics, including Simon Jessop’s gap-toothed yokel inducing us to communal Baa-ing whenever sheep are mentioned. Natasha Moore’s Maria reminds us often enough with a smile in our direction; apt enough, for Maria manipulates quite a lot here.

And there’s a serious point behind the comical gatherings, in the red barn and elsewhere, of radical scarecrows. They’re up to more than merely moving scenery (it’s a Captain Swing thing in response to mechanised threshing). And to the huge pulpit, from which Tom Jude’s vicar delivers his opening denunciations of the poor.

Squire Corder’s almost sidelined, becoming as much fall-guy as perp; for all his elegantly affluent costume he’s not as sophisticated as he thinks. This piece, though, has more up its sleeve than at first seems and Devitt’s staging brings it cunningly to light.

Mrs Marten: Lindsay Ashworth.
Gypsy/Augusta Holmes: Christine Holman.
Mr Marten: Simon Jessop.
Henry Gibbons: Tom Jude.
Maria Marten: Natasha Moore.
Mildred Gibbons: Wendy Paver.
William Corder: Oliver Seymour-Marsh.
Scarecrows: Emily Balham, Joe Butler, Ashton Gohil, Billy Irving, Sean Kelly, Daniella Liburd, Oliver Miller, Sam Ward-Smith, Megan Withers, Hannah Woodgate.

Director: Matt Devitt.
Designer: Norman Coates.
Lighting: Andy Lewis.
Musical Director: Julian Littman.
Fight director: Malcolm Ranson.

2010-11-03 10:30:48

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