They’re a friendly crowd at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, willing to enter into the spirit of things with gusto. As far as Chris Bond’s comedy thriller The Mysteie of Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn is concerned, that includes baa-ing like a strayed flock of sheep right on cue. Every time.
You’ll gather from this that Bond’s play, nicely decorated with appropriate folk- and programme-derived music, isn’t just a re-hash of the popular melodramas which proliferated after the actual 1827 crime. It weaves social commentary as well as a neat twist to fictional as well as factual personalities into the story; this was a period of great agricultural and industrial upheaval in East Anglia as elsewhere.
Norman Coates’ set teases us on several levels. It’s framed by a false proscenium, trucks on various homes and the eponymous barn which look like something out of a contemporary woodcut and suggests throughout the fit-up stages of itinerant entertainers. We’re part in a real world at a real time in history – and part in a 20th century playhouse watching a stoey which is both familiar and off-kiler.
The acting is very good with fine performances from Oliver Seymour-Marsh as William Corder (here given genuine motives for what he does), Natasha Moore as his not-so-innocent victim and Tom Jude as a two-faced clergyman, very much in the fashion of the Tory party at prayer. And there’s Christine Holman as a gypsy with more than a hint of Verdi’s Azucena about her and the delectably anachronistic Lady Augusta Holmes. Her heaven-and-hell violin duel with Jude is a sequence to savour.
Bond’s text ranges from the rhyming couplets associated with early 19th century melodrama and modern pantomime, through blank verse to prose. It’s a pity that director Matt Devitt hasn’t encouraged a little more clarity of enunciation in his cast – Moore and Seymour-Marsh apart, for the words aren’t just worth the hearing. They’re vital to the whole story, after all.