The Ballad of Maria Marten, AUB at Palace Court Theatre, Bournemouth

THE Palace Court Theatre in Bournemouth was opened in 1931, and for decades was the centre of theatrical activity in the town before closing in 1970, since when it has been used as a cinema, a church and a temporary home for various one-off activities. In 2020 it was bought by Arts University Bournemouth, and after essential works, it has been returned to its former use, allowing the students from AUB to move from the versatile hangar at Wallisdown to a proper theatre auditorium.

The first public play of the new era was Beth Flintoff’s powerful drama The Ballad of Maria Marten. The story is best known from the legendary melodrama Murder at the Red Barn, a true crime that enthralled and excited the public from 1827, when Maria’s body was discovered under the floor of a Suffolk barn. The son of a local landowner was charged with murder. Reports of the court case became a national obsession – people even wanted toothpicks made from the timbers of the barn. There is no new thing under the sun, as Ecclesiastes puts it.

Flintoff’s captivatingly angry play started life in 2018 as Polstead (the name of the village where the red barn stood), commissioned by Eastern Angels. The re-named work opened in early 2020 at Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, but after three venues, the COVID nightmare began. Short national tours were arranged in 2021 and 2022. Extraordinarily, other than a brief stop at Wilton’s Music Hall, this remarkable play has not had a London outing.

The Archers famous coercive control storyline in the relationship of Rob Titchener and Helen (the one that led to a change in the law), was all the talk. In 2024, eight years on from the Ambridge stabbing and 200 years on from Maria Marten’s murder, in Britain, almost two women are murdered by their partners EVERY WEEK.

The student cast at AUB talked a lot about “righteous anger” as they rehearsed with director Luke Kernaghan, and it all came out in their brilliant performances on stage at the Palace Court. The original play was performed by six women, taking all the roles. In this production, the company of 13, on a set designed by Alice Drury, create the atmosphere of life in a country village, where girls, denied education, work in the fields and kitchens from dawn to dusk, day after day, grasping at fleeting chances for happiness and love in lives where poverty stalks and every childbirth threatens death.

Maria was different, in that she could read and write. She wanted more.

The story is told from her perspective, with one Maria as narrator and another acting the role. It’s a story of strong women, dependable female friendships and entitled men. The hopeful bucolic Cherry Fair, performed as a Maypole dance, quickly gives way to the dangers and disappointments of life for Maria and her friends, prey as they are to the young men of the village on whose work and wages their lives (and those of their many children) depend.

There’s not a weak link in this impassioned cast, all of them young actors able to grow in AUB’s collaborative relationships between set and costume designers, actors, directors, musicians, stage managers, hair and make-up departments. It’s a very exciting time to be a student at this Bournemouth university.

Zara Kasiningsih and Christina Paz shared the title role, with Nicole Elizabeth as stepmother Annie, Megan Howlett as Sarah, Leyla Kathleen as Therese, Abigail Jean as Lucy, Kate Maryon as Phoebe, Amber Grace Jackson as Lady Cooke, Matthew Cook as Thomas Corder, Isaac Redgrave as Peter Mathews, Elsie Carins as Mrs Woodstock, Lily Barbara as Miss Anvil and Sophie Shields as Miss Pettigrew.

Musical director Katharine Piercey also wrote original music, adding to the impact of the fine singing, skilled movement and passionate storytelling that will stay long in the memory.


The next student shows at the Palace Court will be La Casa Nova from 15th to 18th May, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 30th May to 1st June. Visit AUB.AC.UK/AUB PRODUCTIONS for more information.

Posted in Reviews on .