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Hunters Hill Theatre: The Ballad of Maria Marten - Review by Lucy Giles

"The Ballad of Maria Marten," staged by Hunters Hill Theatre, is a captivating blend of the spooky, the funny, and the endearing. This production strikes an intriguing balance that keeps the audience entertained and engaged from start to finish. By the end, you find yourself rooting wholeheartedly for the characters, a testament to the compelling portrayal by the cast.

This is the second production I have seen directed by Jennifer Willison, and once again, I am impressed. The blocking was meticulously crafted, ensuring every actor had their moment to shine without overshadowing the main action. Background activities were skillfully managed, contributing to the scene's flow rather than distracting from it.

Laura Stead leads the cast as the titular Maria Marten, effortlessly switching between narrator and scene partner to tell the story of her life—of who she was before she fell victim to domestic violence. Stead’s Maria is idealistic, romantic, and playful, and Stead imbues her with a brightness that we watch gradually get chipped away.

This play deals with incredibly heavy subject material, but at its core is female friendship. The cast are able to adeptly switch between the comedic and emotionally demanding elements of the script, with Jacqui Wilson as Sarah Stowe stealing a few scenes and providing much-needed levity throughout the show, while Chiara Helena Arata’s Phoebe Stowe is a grounding force in the show. Arata is in some of the show’s most emotional moments, and while she isn’t necessarily the focal point of these scenes, Arata proves herself to be a generous scene partner, skilled at listening to her castmates.

Genevieve Sky sensitively portrays Theresa Havers, who obstinately ignores what is going on around her as a means of self-preservation, while Kimberlea Smith plays outsider Lucy Baalham. Both characters are dealt hardship, and their coping mechanisms cause friction amongst the women.

Madeleine Lawson is a standout as Ann Marten, and her final scene in Act 1 is absolutely riveting. Jade Rodrigues also shines as Lady Cooke, perfectly portraying a snobby, wealthy woman who is only interested in helping the poor in order to feel socially and morally superior.

Although this production features an all-female cast, there are male characters in the play. Unlike the female characters, the male characters are drawn in broad strokes, largely characterised through Maria’s eyes. Niamh McKervey is a delight to watch as the idealistic Peter Mathews, while Cee Egan nails her portrayal of the brutish, repulsive Thomas Corder. Interestingly, the decision to cast women in male roles almost softens the abuse being shown—while the abusive scenes are not easy to take, it would be almost impossible to watch these scenes play out if a man were in the role. We never see her murderer, we never watch abuse take place on stage, but we bear witness to the impact it has on Maria.

Jenny Andersen, Debbie Kearns, and Joan Rodd round out the impressive cast as various villagers. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie and trust amongst the cast, which felt particularly important during scenes depicting abuse. This choice emphasised the theme of sisterhood, which resonated strongly throughout the play, especially at its climax.

The actors delivered solid performances, particularly impressive in their vocal projection. Despite the challenge of competing with external noise—such as a bingo caller downstairs—their voices were clear and strong without sounding strained. Remarkably, this was achieved without the use of microphones, highlighting their skill and control.

A standout element of the show was the seamless blend of media and lights from lighting and sound designer Wayne Chee, which enhanced the storytelling and created varied atmospheres. Violinist Chris Porteous accompanies the cast, adding depth and heightening the emotion of the performances.

Lighting is often a tricky aspect, especially with numerous changes throughout a production. However, this cast handled it superbly, consistently finding their light and maintaining focus. This attention to detail ensured that every dramatic moment was beautifully highlighted. The use of video projections was a delightful surprise, subtly integrated at first and growing more prominent as the play progressed, culminating in a powerful climax.

The costumes were another highlight, adeptly handling the challenge of depicting characters over two decades. The costume, hair, and makeup departments excelled in aging characters, changing their economic statuses, and managing quick changes with finesse. Simple tricks like tear-away pants and small accessories effectively conveyed the passage of time and character development. The meticulous planning and rehearsal were evident, making the transitions smooth and believable.

Overall, "The Ballad of Maria Marten" by Hunters Hill Theatre is a thoughtfully executed production that combines strong performances, creative direction, and technical excellence. It’s a powerful piece that not only entertains but also leaves a lasting impression on its audience.

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