The Ballad of Maria Marten @ Club Ryde

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed Sunday 9 June).

The Ballad of Maria Marten presented by Hunters Hill Theatre at Club Ryde is based on true crime from the distant past yet eerily relates to the present. A young woman in pre-Victorian England has been brutally murdered by her lover, yet justice is cautious, and slow.

Beth Flintoff’s play published in 2021 is historic-fiction inspired by the Red Barn Murder of Maria Marten in 1827. Maria’s body was gruesomely discovered in the barn by her stepmother a year after she was murdered.

Flintoff’s well-researched play covers the plausible circumstances of Maria’s tragic fate, and explores social and economic disadvantages of women not born into privilege. The language draws on historic and contemporary references and speaks to several feminist themes.

Direction of this ambitious, gender-bended play presents several exciting challenges. Jennifer Willison is one of my favourite directors, and after reviewing 33 Variations by Castle Hill Players, I was blown away yet again by her direction of this play. Willison elevates the standard of community theatre by bringing together several key elements: complex storytelling, grand sets on a thrust stage, fluid choreography and of course, a wonderful group of actors.

To have two solid acts filled with laughter and tears is testament to the power of storytelling when the actors are fully invested in their roles. I particularly appreciated the clear enunciation of each and every line, a point that is missing in many shows of late.

Laura Stead as the titular Maria Marten captures the audience’s attention from her first word to her last. Maria is portrayed as a heroine with many tacit qualities of her gender and position in life: vulnerable, idealistic, rebellious and romantic. Stead perfectly captures Maria’s naivety and innocence in falling in love with men who are either brutal or unavailable for one reason or another. Her heartbreaking experiences with motherhood (later descending into paranoia and madness) is an extraordinary arc. Stead sustains the raw energy demanded of the role.

Kimberlea Smith has always intrigued me as an actor. I’ve only seen in her in minor (almost non-speaking) roles both at the Genesian and at The Pavilion. But her stage presence has always been undeniable. Here, we finally get to witness the full palette of her extraordinary acting talent, playing Lucy Baalham, a childhood friend later-turned-subordinate to Maria, with all the resentment that it creates. Lucy has a subtle, nonchalant sensuality that is perfectly captured to create tension between the characters.

Jacqui Wilson as Sarah Stowe steals a few scenes and laughs with her brazen appetite for men and motherhood. As Maria’s advocate both in life and death, Sarah’s words are personal, nourishing and empowering (‘she had a life, and deserved to live it’).

Maria’s stepmother, Ann Marten, played by Madeleine Lawson, is an interesting character study of a woman unexpectedly finding herself in a maternal role to a young child (in the play, Maria is aged 11 when they first meet). Ann exudes warmth, benevolence and confusion in how to raise a blossoming and boisterous woman full of promise. Ann’s reaction at the closing scene of Act 1 is haunting.

Other standouts include Jade Rodrigues as Lady Cooke, a wealthy socialite who seems to have ambiguous intentions for Maria. Cee Egan as Thomas Corder inhabits his repulsive, toadish brutality. Niamh McKervey is simply delightful as Peter Mathews, the only lover who truly cares for Maria.

Rounding out the impressive cast is Debbie Kearns as Miss Pettigrew, Joan Rodd as Miss Anvill, Jenny Andersen as Mrs Woodstock, Chiara Helena Arata as Phoebe Stowe and Genevieve Sky as Theresa Havers (a vocally demanding role!). Two musicians also accompany the troupe, Chris Porteous and Laura Chung.

Period costumes by JAS Enterprises are colourful and vivid, creating a bright, optimistic aesthetic in contrast with the looming tragedy. The palette of colours (rustic earthy tones for the farmhands, pure white for the stepmother and bright satin for the rich folk) give individuation and personality to the characters whilst also denoting their status. I particularly adored Peter Mathews in bright satin blue, looking very splendid as a sort of ‘knight in shining armour’.

Set design by Adrienne Segal and set construction by Michael Richmond, Ian Ackland, Grant Fraser and Ross Alexander creates an intriguing world divided into thirds, with a tiny rustic kitchen on one side, the barn taking centre stage and the opulent alcove at Lady Cooke’s residence on the other. The lighting overlay evoking elements such as snow, rain and fire along with pivotal music creates a rich, haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the play reaches its conclusion.

One of the best productions ever seen at Club Ryde.

The Ballad of Maria Marten presented by Hunters Hill Theatre is performing at Club Ryde til 23 June. For tickets and showtimes, go to

Images: Dan Ferris

2 thoughts on “The Ballad of Maria Marten @ Club Ryde

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *