The historic trial of Henley’s legendary convicted murderess, Mary Blandy was given a dramatic retrial this week at the Kenton Theatre in aid of the Chiltern Centre with the audience being the new jury.
Mary was convicted of murdering her father, Francis Blandy, Henley town Clerk and solicitor by an all-male jury in just five minutes and was hanged for the crime on a gallows tree outside Oxford Castle on 6 April 1752. Buried in St Mary’s churchyard, next to her father many people have said that they have had ghostly sightings at a number of locations around the town including the theatre.
The idea for the play was Richard Reed’s, a former news editor. He said, “When I researched the details of Mary’s trial and conviction for the murder of her father. Further reading led me to believe that she just might have received an unfair court hearing and sentencing.
The play was written by Mike Rowbottom (who also played Mary’s lover William Cranstoun), using transcripts (over 200 pages) and evidence from the original trial. Mike said, “I was struck from the start at how little concern there was for Mary herself, the trial was much more a savage form of theatre for the benefit of the lawyers, than a real attempt at justice. Mary was not allowed to be questioned; she could only make a statement which I didn’t think did her many favours.”
The play opened with a hanging noose above Mary’s head and Director Julie Huntington giving the opening statement before the court officials arrived on stage through the auditorium. The play continued throughout with an excellent mixture of re-enactment of events leading up to Francis’ death, the cross-examining of Mary and witnesses and the projection of evidence and a film reproduced of Mary running away in her petticoat across Henley bridge.
The big question was did Mary kill her father in cold blood or did love mask her mental state? Mary told the jury that she didn’t know that the love powder given to her by her lover, William Cranstoun (later believed to be arsenic) that she mixed with her father’s gruel would kill him. She said that William had told her that it would melt her father’s heart towards him and allow them to marry. There were a lot of questions about why the powder was put in an envelope with ‘powder for polishing the pebbles’ written on the front. Especially when the maid servants were asked why they were not asked to polish the pebbles with it!
With all the serious evidence, there was mixture of comedy thrown in throughout the court proceedings with clever references to today’s times. We particularly loved the dating app reference to show Mary the freedom we have now to express feelings and desires between sexes. The Clerk to the Court played by Richard Pinches who had asked for a small part after helping with the filming, had the greatest one-liners and he dropped them with brilliance. Oliver Clark who played three characters, all with different accents, also had a brilliant debut too.
Mary played by Heather Trevis stole the show with her acting prowess and articulated long dialects. Perhaps if Mary was as good an actress and living in these times she would still be alive today?
After the graphic details from Dr Addington and the funny maid servant Susanna Gunnell who claimed she could not read but remembered what the envelope said, the jury (the audience) decided after completing a form that Mary was guilty of manslaughter. The votes were 55 guilty, 40 not guilty and 112 manslaughter.
Will this see the ghost of Mary Blandy laid to rest. We’ll have to wait and see.
The play raised over £2,000 for The Chiltern Centre. The organisers would like to thank Blandy & Blandy solicitors and Magoos for sponsoring the show.