This verbatim play tells the true story of self-styled, 'Countess' Mariaska Romanov, a Harlesden woman who led an extraordinary double life; claiming to be both a direct descendent of the Russian Royal family and her very own paraplegic twin sister - Marianne Johnson. After conning Brent council out of nearly £200,000 in fraudulent benefit claims, the decade-long web of lies was finally unravelled in a six-week trial dubbed ‘stranger than fiction. Told through exclusive interviews with the people at the centre of the story, court transcripts and extensive research.
A Benefits Scandal dubbed 'Stranger than Fiction'.
Arguably Britain's most bizarre benefits scandal, The Countess is the story of a woman who led an extraordinary double life, claiming to be both a member of the Russian Royal family... and her own bed-bound paraplegic twin sister. It was an outlandish, yet calculated scheme to defraud the benefits system, which led to one of the most detailed and lengthy investigations in Brent Council's history.
In her brazen scheme, ‘Countess’ Mariaska Romanov, a prominent and noisy figure in the borough, worked directly with the council to operate a cafe in one of their parks - all while cashing in (to the tune of almost £200,000!) in fraudulent disability payouts, in the name of Marianne Jonson. She claimed ‘intermittent paraplegia’, and for Social Services visits she would lie in bed with a scarf covering her head, wearing sunglasses in a darkened room – making it impossible to assess her claim. In the trial, dubbed "stranger than fiction", the court heard how payments funded a lavish lifestyle (fit for a countess), including foreign travel, luxury shopping, and weekly visits to salons and manicurists - all covered by the taxpayer, at the expense of those truly deserving.
In March 2010, Marianne Jonson was found guilty of 23 counts of fraud and jailed for four and a half years. This play untangles the Countess' web of lies through exclusive interviews with the Fraud Investigation team, and the ex-Leader of Brent Council, together with illuminating transcripts from the fantastical trial which took place at Harrow Crown Court. A community chorus of park users, councillors, and locals, all of whom were all taken in by the Countess' rouse, add colour and a touch of whimsy to the proceedings, befitting of the truly eccentric story at the heart of the play.
Blue Elephant Theatre, London, UK