"Humorously twisted, grim reality tale"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 05/05/14

Curiously named, Angel Exit Theatre Company, launched its latest, seven-weeks tour through England & Wales by visiting Kingston Deverill, amid delightful Wiltshire scenery. A genuine old timber-built barn adapted for performance Arts, was a fitting place to begin retelling the grim tale of Martha Brown, hanged in public for murdering her drunken, abusive husband.

Arriving for The Ballad of Martha Brown's troubled life & tragic death, patrons are greeted by the cast, already costumed to fit their roles. They hand out free 'penny broadsheet' programmes, printed with items of interest relating to the production including the words of a callous ditty heard in the play. Such songs were sold & sung lustily around public gallows, in 'the good old days' when an execution by hanging was an exceptional entertainment, 'not to be missed.' - Live theatre is better.

The play begins and almost immediately we see the unfortunate 'Monster' brought forward to the noose. Lynne Forbes in a full length black silk dress, dignified but understandably apprehensive facing a cruel demise, but the Angel Exit Sprites spring up to rescue her. These are the ghosts of previously hanged individuals, coming to welcome her into their soulful gathering, but first, must help Martha tell her story, so this sorry tale becomes a pleasure by these intrusively mischievous spirits.

Dialogue is clear and moves the story onward at a brisk rate. The acting is sincere and movement, almost ballet. Fans of Angel Exit will recognize the company's signature choreography, inventively weaving and interacting among each other and through the complex scenery. Three of the five performers switch personalities with surprising ease, in and out of seven characters and there's never a doubt of their different identities.
We meet the men in Martha's life, and some of the women, too. She was virtuous and respected in the world. With fine sensitivity, Lynne Forbes portrays the gravitas of the time, in which folk were sensible of their standing in other's opinions. Martha's conduct is exemplary in all her dealings until events throw her off-balance and make her a victim, in circumstances beyond her control. Then Martha Brown slipped out of character only once - and was doomed, and the play shows the pity.

Another trademark quality of the company is ingenious use of props; for example, bread-dough that Martha is kneading becomes a babe in arms, then is a log or something, viciously chopped in half that are then twin babes. The company also uses simple tricks after Brecht, the famous German Jewish theatre director & writer who turned Stanislavsky's high-handed 'realism' on its head and in effect said, 'We all know Theatre is only pretence. We should replace theatrical pseudo-realism with the reality of Theatre.' (NB: Not a quote; my own summary) In that vein, when the scene changes, written signs are displayed, saying where the new location is & in what year. These signs sometimes appear in very odd places.

The speeches are serious but the lively sprites are uplifting in Angel Exit productions. Here, they fill bleak moments with dark humour, dancing & singing freshly created, amusing lyrics. Another more earthly song, and for me, the cleverest and funniest, was that sung by William Wolfe Hogan as the cruel Hangman, William Calcraft. Hogan performs his song with hilarious antics, backed by a superbly coordinated chorus of ghostly past victims. The final chorus number too, was memorable
and touching but also amusing. 'In Her Black Silk Dress' left me elated that I'd spent a worthwhile couple of hours, including a generous interval, being educated to understand better, a jolly grim reality of life as once was lived in this country, not so long ago. And thoroughly entertaining, too.

These performers deserved the wholehearted applause we gave them. They are; Tamsin Fessey as 'the other woman' Mary Davis, and both the physical & a ghostly Tess Durbeyfield, a delightful 'cheat' too tempting not to include; Lynne Forbes was poor Martha and Simon Carroll-Jones, her ill- fated but brutish hubby, John Brown. His mother was Morag Cross and the Hangman as said, was William Wolfe Hogan.

Angel Exit is remarkably consistent in the quality of its shows; Fessey & Forbes, long-time show- bizz partners, also make successful forays into other prestigious theatre projects, but thankfully, come together regularly with other talented 'creatives' as Angel Exit, to devise excellent shows.

Until late June, these exciting performers take The Ballad of Martha Brown to many parts of England & Wales. If you can, be in at the death.

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