DORSET-based physical theatre company Angel Exit gave the first performance of their eagerly-awaited new piece, The Ballad of Martha Brown, in the atmospheric setting of Manor Farm Barn as part of the first Deverills Festival.
And any apprehension that it might not draw a large audience was quickly dispelled as the organisers had to draft in more seating.
The company, run by Tamsin Fessey and Lynne Forbes, has evolved a distinctive style and it has never been better employed than in this darkly comic retelling of the story of Martha Brown, the last woman publicly hanged in Dorset, watched by an impressionable teenager called Thomas Hardy.
Tamsin studied at Paris’s famous Lecoq drama school, and she and Lynne incorporate European traditions of clowning, chorus and comedy to bring their stories to life. The company has already tackled Moonfleet and The Secret Garden, and went to My Name is Martha Brown, written by Rosemary Ellerbeck (Nicola Thorne), to discover a back story for the woman whose gruesome death at the hand of a celebrated London executioner brought more than 3,000 people to watch and cheer.
With co-writer Amy Rosenthal, Lynne and Tamsin have created a work for five performers, all first appearing as the embodied shades of hanged criminals.
In the hours before her death, Martha Brown, convicted of murdering her husband John, is invited to tell her story, and it’s done in words, music and mime.
In the ancient Deverill barn it wasn’t difficult to transport the audience back 150 years, but the company also vividly evoked the monotony of rural life. Ten years in the Symes farm passed before our eyes, and the shock of the arrival of young John Brown was palpable.
Martha’s story is a shocking reflection on the ownership, sexism and blood-lust of the time, and Angel Exit – the founders with fiddler William Wolfe Hogan, Morag Cross and Simon Carroll Jones – have again found a hugely entertaining, visually stunning and choreographically astonishing way to tell it.
The tour continues, crossing the country, until 21st June.
Don’t miss the chance to see this inventive and exciting company in what may be their best show yet.
Other dates in the south west are Salisbury Playhouse Salberg Studio on 16th May, Dorchester Corn Exchange (22nd and 23rd) and Bath Rondo on 28th May. June dates are at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton on 4th, Exeter’s Ignite Festival from 5th to 7th, Ilfracombe Landmark (14th), Sturminster Newton Exchange (15th), Poole Lighthouse (17th), Swanage Mowlem Theatre (18th), Lyme Regis Marine Theatre (19th) and Bridport Arts Centre on Friday and Saturday 20th and 21st June.