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The Ballad of Martha Brown (Salisbury Playhouse)

The Ballad of Martha Brown provides a macabre comedy cabaret at Salisbury Playhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

So far this year The Salberg Studio has seen some diverse and interesting plays. As the spring season draws to a close, the latest play to visit is Angel Exit Theatre's The Ballad of Martha Brown. Though the piece wanders off the subject at times, it does give a fascinating insight into the last woman to be hanged for murdering her husband.

A macabre comedy cabaret, the story of Martha Brown is told by a chorus using music, sounds and dance to tell her life in various creative ways. The imagery used is dark but also a lot of fun. It is also clear that the company researched in depth Martha Brown and 19th century England.

The stand-out performance is of course Lynne Forbes as Martha Brown. We see Martha at her hanging, which bookends the production, despised and scorned by the chorus of spectators as they whisk her through her life. However, through it all she remains resolute to the bitter end.

Plaudits must also go to Simon Carroll Jones as her husband, John Brown. Both he and Martha share aspirations for a better life and the chemistry between them is touching. It only makes the growing tragedy even more harrowing. The second act sees them growing apart as John cheats and Martha becomes victim to his violence.

The rest of the cast produce creepy performances as the chorus. With their whitened faces and hallowed eyes, I half expected the play to ask who the monster actually is. Martha or society? They play certain characters from her past and torture her with what's to come. There are also moments where they anthropomorphise as animals and objects, including the killer weapon.

If I have a problem with the play then it is the pacing. The set is complex, but there are times where the production stops while they rearrange it during scene changes. The hanging itself looks awkward.

Also I could have done with less of the dozens of ideas inherent in this production, because some of them distract from the focus of the play. As the cast keeps reminding the audience, it is Martha Brown's story.

An interesting idea is the introduction of another historical figure, William Calcraft, who hanged more than 400 people including Martha. William Wolfe Hogan gives a maniacally entertaining performance, taking delight in the amount of victims he has sent to his death. However, he only comes on for the last 20 minutes of the play, which almost becomes a story in itself. All I wanted to see at that point was the inevitable hanging.

Nevertheless, you will come out of this production feeling that you've learnt a piece of fascinating history. Though it could be cut in a few places, this is an entertaining and illuminating play with a devilishly fantastic cast.

- David Jobson