Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Margaret Down Under

Alastair Cording
Eastern Angles Theatre Company
William Loveless Hall, Wivenhoe, Essex
(2004)

Margaret Down Under, Alastair Cording's vigorous and touching sequel play to Margaret Catchpole, follows the fate of the Ipswich horsethief who was sentenced to transportation for life after taking a horse to meet her lover, later seeing him gunned down as he tried to rescue her.

The play begins with Margaret's embarkation for Botany Bay, accompanied by the fun-loving harlot Lizzie and the quiet, ladylike Rose. The first act follows the three women's attempts to survive the year-long voyage at the mercy of the sailors as much as of the waves, with act two tracing their even more perilous struggle on land.

Alastair Cording's dramatisation of this material is beautifully judged. The first act does not compromise on the suffering and humiliations of the women on board, but it is played with some humour and accompanied by lusty harmonic singing of shanties by the whole cast. If it seems to reproduce the squalor and sickness of these voyages with less than gory realism it is because Cording has even greater horrors to explore in the second half. Here, the experiences of all three women are heartbreaking, but Cording's play explores their suffering and degradation, as well as that of some male characters, with subtlety.

The excellent script is well served by Rachel Downey's simple but effectively serviceable set, comprising a raised platform with sections of canvas tied to a metal frame. This makes a splendid ship, where sailors can climb in and re-arrange the rigging, but it is also works effectively as a building, the canvas partitions offering the possibility of private spaces, and allowing some effective shadowplay when lit from behind.

Above all, the play benefits from the inventive direction of Ivan Cutting and an exemplary ensemble of actors. The tragic deterioration of Sadie McMahon's Rose and Ceri West's irrepressible Lizzie, as well as Neil Summerville's dual role as Margaret's beneficent patron Cobbold in act one and the cruel Captain MacAllister in act two, are absorbing to watch. At its heart, though, is a performance of great poise and subtlety from Karren Winchester as Margaret. Her presence is characterised by a quality of stillness and attention that brings another dimension to the play, allowing us to witness without incredulity the salvaging of a little hope from this tale of despair.

For the last two months Eastern Angles have toured this production around the small theatres, barns and village halls of East Anglia, taking with them a foldout information board and a few rows of comfortable seating. It doesn't need fancy technology or front-of-house glitz to spruce up a dramatic experience of this quality.

Reviewer: Jill Sharp