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Polstead review at the Undercroft, Peterborough – ‘passion and sensitivity’

Elizabeth Crarer, Bethan Nash, Roxanne Palmer, Lucy Grattan, and Lydia Bakelmun in Polstead. Photo: Mike Kwasniak
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Shot, strangled, bludgeoned, and buried under a barn in men’s clothes, Maria Marten’s murder was one of the 19th century’s most infamous. But Eastern Angles’ Polstead, currently engaged in a short regional tour, is a smart and sensitive study, not of her death, but her life.

Beth Flintoff’s script, developed with input from domestic abuse survivors, is full of empathy, a conscious act of reclaiming the woman’s story from her killer, William Corder, whose outrageously erratic behaviour often overshadows any telling of this tale. Here, he is entirely absent.

Director Hal Chambers handles the grim subject with delicacy, filling the performance with movement, singing, and hopefulness. The strong cast show off effervescent chemistry as they spar, tease, and comfort one another, with Lydia Bakelmun particularly impressive as worldly, fearless Sarah. Elizabeth Crarer, meanwhile, is extraordinary as Maria, conducting raw emotion like a live wire, but wringing tremendous nuance from the role just the same. As her coercive lover gradually erodes her sense of self and sanity, she becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, changing her story, accusing the audience of callousness and complicity in her plight.

Luke Potter’s soundtrack is rich and transporting, with vivacious folk reels stretched out with sustained notes, scratchy fiddles, and yearning, live-sung vocal harmonies made tense and thrilling with bluesy touches.

The set, by Verity Quinn, is sturdy and atmospheric, built around a movable archway and a solid barn wall, shafts of golden light seeping between the sturdy planks to occasionally beautiful, occasionally oppressive effect.

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Beth Flintoff’s powerful historical drama tackles issues of domestic abuse with passion and sensitivity