FringeReview UK 2018
Director Tess Gill finds a vehicle tailored for Hallowe’en. Steven Adams provides a comfy chaired and table festooned interior, with wall reveals, as well as lighting and sound. Frankie Knight’s costumes drape Goddard in velvety black, Griffiths in greys and lace, Balfe in immaculate Edwardian greys. Glennys Harries-Rees operates sound and light. Paul Charleton’s managing is vital for this diminutive stage.
Think E Nesbit and it’s The Railway Children, or perhaps Five Children and It. Magic carpets, The Psammiad. When Philip Meeks thinks Edith Nesbitt (1858-1924) he recalls her other fiction, in particular her early gothic tales, and life.
In this production of Meeks’ Edith in the Dark premiering at Harrogate in December 2013, Tess Gill steers a pacey shape-shifting vehicle perfectly tailored for Hallowe’en just as much for the Christmas M. R. James-style chiller it began as. Oh – Nesbitt thinks James was hoping attractive, scared young men might leap into his arms. It’s that kind of work. Full of sly fun. But…
Steven Adams provides a comfy chaired and tabled interior, bookcase with many books downstage right, liberally snatched and flung about. With the lighting he also designs, a superb four pm gloams grey-blue through the window as a premise to crafting deep shadows along back walls. When these reveal themselves (Glennys Harries-Rees operates sound and light) we’re in a different world, virid green writhing and a sparing use of red and other lighting. Adams saves the er, sound for conclusions that go with such things. Frankie Knight’s costumes drape Goddard in velvety black, Griffiths in greys and lace, Balfe in crisp Edwardian serge and greys. Paul Charleton’s managing is vital for this diminutive stage. At one point there’s a snatch of Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. Nice.
The bohemian ‘sauce for the goose’ Nesbitt rightly took a string of lovers since her husband not only took a mistress but brought her back to their home, and Nesbitt – her maiden name too – adopted their daughter Rosalind who became her literary executor and completer. Nesbitt wasn’t any ideal mother, Lyn Gardner in an old article reminds us. But what’s that? Of her two sons one died at fifteen after a tonsil operation having wrongly eaten food. He was called Fabian. After that society. Nesbitt and her husband were active socialists.
All this emerges. Here Meeks though turns that image inside out. We’re treated to Nesbitt herself visited by a pale and interesting young man, Mr Guasto, she immediately hits on. Yet after his hard-to-get primness finally melts, his lips don’t: they’re icy. Interval. And there’s tippling housekeeper Biddy Thricefold. Both Nesbitt and she are separately wracking their memories: Thricefold for the name of the girl, Nesbitt the man’s.
We’re up in the eyrie of Nesbitt’s study. Guasto’s gate-crashed his way through a reception downstairs and rescued a girl who’s fainted through a tight corset and sustained concussion. He’s a Nesbitt fan. Nesbitt makes it clear she could find far more use for him than to read out The Railway Children. She does eventually, but it’s an alternative ending. And he’s an alternative man.
Having sort of charmed Nesbitt, Nik Balfe’s excellent prim Edwardian finds himself roped into the audience and enactments of Mimi Goddard’s at first mumsy then increasingly vampy New Woman of say 1912. He’ll get tales, but on her terms. Patti Griffiths’ excellent and dextrous Thricefold arrives with two cups of hot punch (both hers) at a shock juncture and everything though horrid is more spoof than spook.
That’s the flavour of much of this; it’s a way in, telling the tales slant. Nesbitt’s first varies the determined young man tricked out of a bride by being pressured to visit his dying employer; and hasting back too soon, in quite a powerful way. In this Goddard’s the jealous friend who learns consequences for all. His groom-to-be friend’s determined to claim his bride, even if late as it were for the wedding. It’s the longest tale.
There’s several other stories. Continually the three protagonists take the stand, Goddard and Balfe narrate then melt into character. There’s a touching one about a crippled old man Abraham (Balfe) who recalls his one love, a rather spectrally-lit young woman (Goddard) he can’t get back to in time before the full moon. It’s the most touching.
There’s the dark comedy of the plain heiress and her penniless pretty young friend Ernestina, and the ‘colonel’ who in truth is a dastardly adventurer. And some bindweed. Green shadows, light and extraordinary walls are unleashed here in the greenhouse, and the first of those curdled noises. This following sexual jealousy and a rather touching friendship rekindled after some goings on, looking forward to some real satisfaction as we leave them.
The final tale deploys deep red light, ebony picture frame, a conjured long-dead witch’s picture and that of young Cavendish who’s just taken possession of this house from a distant aunt in the north. Luckily he’s attracted the attentions of the young maid who risks fire for him, as the original of that picture raises it for the same purposes. Another tug of love; something’s autobiographically sublimated in all this.
Now Molly Cavendish… that girl, thinks Thricefold. And Nesbitt’s worked out Mr Guasto. The cast are fine – Griffiths can turn on comedy beautifully and in other roles hint pathos through her main character’s carapace. Balfe delivers requisite primness with reserves hinting at another dimension. Goddard exudes Nesbitt’s matter-of-fact directness, sexiness, and often sly fun when she’s given several of those comic roles-within-roles: an extension of Nesbitt. The rather different flavour to the conclusion of this play might surprise and should certainly thrill you. Will Edith always be in the Dark?