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Polstead by Beth Flintoff
An Eastern Angles production now touring
At the Ipswich Waterfront

Beth Flintoff’s Polstead is a new take on the life and unsolved murder of a working class woman, Maria (pronounced Mar-iah) Martin, in Polstead in the 1820s. It’s a story which has been told before in newspapers, plays, film and in a TV series, but Flintoff tells it from Maria’s perspective, from her grave under the barn. Flintoff with Director Hal Chambers, Set and Costume Designer Verity Quinn, Composer Luke Potter, Lighting Designer Zoe Spurr, Movement Director Rebecca Randall and Scenic Artists Pat Whymark and Julia Harries have together created a stunningly beautiful, funny, engaging and clever production which leaves its audience reeling.

Perhaps it’s the characterisation, perhaps it’s the quality of the performances by an incredibly versatile cast of six women, perhaps it’s the staging… but, just as with Ragnarok (also directed by Chambers), the fourth wall, that imagined space that separates the actors from the audience, seems to melt away as Maria’s tale unfolds.

Maria, played  with gusto by Elizabeth Crarer, and her friends Sarah (Lydia Bakelmum), Lucy (Lucy Grattan), Theresa (Bethan Nash) and Phoebe (Roxanne Palmer) are a colourful bunch, full of devilment (well perhaps not Lucy!) who stay strong in times of hardship. Maria’s childhood ceases when her mother dies and she becomes a ‘ten-year-old mother’ to her siblings, often rising at 4am to make breakfast for her father. The arrival of Ann (played beautifully by Sarah Goddard), her stepmother, allows Maria to be young again and we enjoy seeing her and her friends grow into confident young women (except perhaps for Lucy!).

Hunger is never far from the door and when times are bad Maria does what’s necessary to feed her family. Despite heartbreak and tragedy she remains strong, as much in control of her own destiny as it was possible of a young woman of her class to be in the 1820s. This is why her gradual decline is so difficult to watch and no doubt why many members of the audience left in tears. We see it coming, we see the signs, but like Maria we are powerless. Maria loses herself to fear and manipulation and ultimately loses her life to a man we thankfully never meet. I applaud Flintoff and Chambers for not giving William Crowther a voice. This is Maria’s story and we see enough of William in the gradual deterioration of Maria’s mental health.

Maria’s murder compels her friends to take direct action (the barn burning scene is very clever) and in doing so they not only reclaim Maria, but gain strength to stand up against the abuse they have previously hidden.

Serious issues yes, but told with sensitivity and humour and it’s a joy to spend an evening in the company of Maria and her feisty friends. You will laugh, you may cry, but you will definitely care and I think Maria will be pleased by that.

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Sharon Jenkins
Sharon is the editor of InTouch With... a series of local community magazines covering Suffolk and North Essex.

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