REVIEW: The Ballad Of Maria Marten, SJT, Scarborough *****

Playwright Beth Flintoff

REVIEW: The Ballad Of Maria Marten, Eastern Angles/Matthew Linley Creative Projects, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, today at 7.30pm. Box office: 01723 370541 or at

INCREASINGLY, touring theatre needs the support of partners to sustain companies. Productions as extraordinary, brilliant and powerful as this one are the vindication for encouraging more such partnerships.

Scarborough’s SJT has the “in association” role in The Ballad Of Maria Marten, and any company would be delighted to play in The Round, the 360-degree theatre experience that adds so much to each Alan Ayckbourn premiere every Scarborough summer season. Eastern Angles thrive.

Elizabeth Crarer emerges from the side as the lights are still up, cutting across the hum of audience chatter. She is holding a decayed, fraying umbrella, her clothes are worn and masculine; blood and bruises are on her face.. We take all this in slowly and are instantly riveted.

We learn she is Maria Marten, the besmirched murder victim at the heart of Beth Flintoff’s play about the notorious Red Barn Murder. The defence case of the murderer, disreputable squire, William Corder, has oft been told, but not Maria’s.

How do you solve a problem like Maria’s void? By telling her story, and more particularly her back story from childhood, and as we all know there are two sides to every story, but not always in the courtrooms of a male-dominated society, such as the one that ruled Polstead in rural Suffolk in the summer of 1827, where a woman’s sole goal was to marry.

Elizabeth Crarer in rehearsal for The Ballad Of Maria Marten. Picture: Giorgis Media

The rest of Hal Chambers’ cast – Suzanne Ahmet, Emma Denly, Jessica Dives, Sarah Goddard and Susanna Jennings – descend from the auditorium stairways, one by one, all female (although two will go on to play men), and the ensemble nature of Flintoff’s storytelling is quickly established.

All the ingredients are outstanding: Flintoff’s prescient and engrossing writing; Luke Potter’s enveloping score; the cast’s compelling performing and beautiful singing, so individual yet collective; Zoe Spurr’s superb lighting; Verity Quinn’s minimalist set design, with the cast briskly moving whatever needs moving from scene to scene. In particular, Rebecca Randall’s movement direction is so key to the drama, using The Round to its maximum.

The title, changed from the original and too plain Polstead when this play premiered in 2018, is apt. The piece does indeed have the character of a ballad, being more of a folk play, even a Mummer’s Play, than the melodrama that usually prevails in Red Barn Murder re-tellings.

We know from the start that Maria is dead, and so The Ballad Of Maria Marten is a resurrection of sorts, like in Mummer’s Plays and in the depiction of fellow murder victim Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood last year. Note, too, how Maria now has her name in the title.

Rather than a manhunt detective story, piecing together the evidence from Maria’s body being found a year after she went missing, Flintoff fills the stage with the intricacies of her life story, with humour and darkness, joys and sadness, hopes and dashed dreams, in equal measure, the childhood shaping the adulthood that follows.

“I didn’t want her to be a victim any more. Maria emerged as intelligent,
brave and wryly funny,” said Flintoff beforehand. “How are we going to let women speak for themselves when there is so much history of being ignored?”

By writing such a ground-breaking play in changing times certainly helps. Maria is indeed no longer a victim, and Flintoff’s sense of optimism for the future is the closing emotion of a ballad play that truly sings.

Charles Hutchinson

If the world were about to end, would you take part in a final quiz night. Yes? Read on

Note the name of the pub: the perfect prescient setting for The Last Quiz Night On Earth

QUICK question. Did you see Chip Shop Chips, Box Of Tricks Theatre Company’s show at Pocklington Arts Centre last year?

Yes? So, presumably you will want know when they will be returning to Pock and what in?

The answers are Friday, March 20 in The Last Quiz Night On Earth, an immersive, innovative new play by Alison Carr for theatre devotees and pub quiz enthusiasts alike, who are promised “a very different experience of live performance”, set in a pub.

In the Box Of Tricks locker already are the award-winning Manchester company’s shows SparkPlug, Narvik and Under Three Moons. Now they follow two sold-out tours of Chip Shop Chips with Carr’s pre-apocalyptic comedy, The Last Quiz Night On Earth, as an asteroid heads to Earth in a tour that also visits the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, for performances in the bar on March 24 and 25. 

Writer Alison Carr and assistant director Kitty Ball in the rehearsal room for The Last Quiz Night On Earth. Picture: Alex Mead

Next question. What happens? “It’s the final countdown. Landlady Kathy invites audiences to the last quiz night on earth with Quizmaster Rav. He is the host with the most,” say Box Of Tricks, an associate company at the SJT, by the way.

“But with time ticking, some unexpected guests turn up out of the blue. Bobby wants to settle old scores and Fran wants one last shot at love. Expect the unexpected to the bitter end and plenty of drama as the show gets quizzical.”

Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder directs the play, with design by Katie Scott. Pub landlady Kathy will be played by Meriel Scholfield, who has appeared in Coronation Street, Last Tango In Halifax, Holby City and Doctors, while Shaban Dar will take the role of pre-apocalyptic Quizmaster Rav.

Playwright Alison Carr’s past works include Caterpillar and Iris; her latest play, Tuesday, has been commissioned for the National Theatre’s 2020 Connections programme, to be performed by 40 groups from across the country. The Last Quiz Night On Earth is her first for Box Of Tricks.

Box Of Tricks director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder

Next question. Why did she write The Last Quiz Night On Earth? “I started two other ideas before this one but they wouldn’t take hold. The idea of a quiz night kept popping into my head but I’d dismiss it because I was worried it’d been done too often before.

“So, I kept plugging away and overcomplicating things, until eventually I thought ‘okay, lean into it – a quiz night and what? A quiz night AND the world is about to end. It all opened up from there and a quiz night became the only way to tell this story.

“It brings so much to explore like togetherness and community, camaraderie, competitiveness. Throw into the mix an asteroid heading straight for us, and the stakes get higher. It’s the final chance to say the unsaid, heal rifts, get the last word, make peace with regrets or try to do something about them.” 

Alison wanted to combine the known and the unknown, the safe and the downright terrifying. “My vision was to create something that audiences don’t just sit and watch but are part of – but not in a scary way,” she says. 

Meriel Schofield as pub landlady Kathy in The Last Quiz Night On Earth. Picture: Alex Mead

“Personally, the thought of audience participation makes me feel sick, but a quiz is something we can all do, whether we’re a general knowledge expert or the neatest so we can do the writing.”

Comparing The Last Quiz Night On Earth with her past work, Alison says: “There are elements there like a fractious sibling relationship, and having something quite extreme or unexpected going on.

“But, overall, it’s quite a departure, especially the characters’ interaction with the audience. My jumping- off point was to write something fun. A play about an imminent apocalypse might not sound like larks and giggles, but around the time I got the call, I’d been researching a lot of serious, dark material for other plays I was writing.

“It takes its toll. So, when Hannah got in touch, my first thoughts were ‘yes please’ and ‘for my own well-being, it’s got to be fun’. Plus, I always want to be challenging myself, not trotting out the same-old, same-old. And just like ‘dark’ doesn’t mean humourless or hard-going, ‘fun’ certainly doesn’t equal something fluffy or meaningless. It is the end of the world, after all.” 

Shaban Dar as pre-apocalyptic Quizmaster Rav

Alison names Victoria Wood as her biggest inspiration. “She was, is, and always will be,” she says. “Her voice is so distinctive and so northern. She’s why I tried writing anything in the first place. She brought joy to so many and achieved so much, she was a grafter.  

“I’ll always try and see any Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams plays I can: they’re so big and fearless. Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is one of my favourite plays. Lee Hall, Bryony Lavery, Zinnie Harris. I recently saw and read some Annie Baker plays and I’m in awe of her.

“Having said all that, I’m not so much a fan of particular playwrights as I am plays and theatre in general. I try and see as much theatre as I can in the North East and beyond.”

Last question, Alison, why should the good people of Pocklington and Scarborough seeThe Last Quiz Night On Earth? “Well, there’s a quiz – a real one. Real questions, real teams, real swapping of answer sheets to mark,” she says. “You don’t have to be good at quizzes (I’m not) or, if you are, great, come and show off.

Chris Jack as Bobby in Box Of Tricks’ production

“And when you’re not trying to remember which British city hosted the 1970 Commonwealth Games, there’s a story unfolding around you about family and regrets and last chances. About making your mark, about grabbing the bull by the horns and not waiting until it’s too late to say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’ve never liked that colour on you’.

“I wouldn’t want anyone other than Box of Tricks making The Last Quiz Night On Earth. Their work is never pretentious or intimidating, it’s welcoming and warm and a good night out. What better way to meet our fiery demise?”  

Box Of Tricks present The Last Quiz Night On Earth, Pocklington Arts Centre, March 20, 7.30pm, and Stephen Joseph Theatre bar, Scarborough, March 24, 1.30pm (Dementia Friendly performance) and 7.30pm; March 25, 7.30pm. Box office: Pocklington, 01759 301547 or at; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or