Theatre’s classic spooky tales open lid on author’s dark side

Scott Ellis and Blue Merrick in Edith in the Dark. (Picture by Sam Atkins)
Scott Ellis and Blue Merrick in Edith in the Dark. (Picture by Sam Atkins)

Review by Weekend Editor Graham Chalmers

Edith in the Dark, Harrogate Theatre Studio.

Don’t be fooled by the small-scale nature of the first play commissioned by Harrogate Theatre in two decades.

Performing with a cast of three in the compact space of the Studio is no sign of any lack of ambition.

Set in a crumbling attic at a Christmas Eve party at the home of The Railway Childen author E Nesbit, Philip Meeks’ play is a gripping meditation on the role of women and the nature of writing hidden inside a series of classic ghost stories.

Entertaining but multi-layered, the award-winning Meeks wants to tell her story, for she wasn’t a ‘he’, (the E standing for Edith), and at the same time tell her stories - if you know what I mean.

To do so he takes four of Nesbit’s lesser-known but chilling short stories, and cleverly adds one of his own involving the author herself.

The effect is like those creepy portmanteau horror movies such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors with the added ingredient of showing how the times affected Nesbit’s life and how her life affected her work.

With such lofty ambitions lurking within such a small play everything in this important new production for Harrogate Theatre has to be just right - and it is - from Meeks’ writing to Keith Hukin’s tight direction to the excellent realisation of our trio of characters by the talented cast.

It could be argued that Meeks’s script is a case not merely of having your cake and eating it, too, but having your cake, eating it, too, then recycling it in order to have it and eat it all over again.

The heart of the play is Edith Nesbit herself, brilliantly played by Blue Merrick with cutting precision as a bitter but impressively articulate woman well aware of the limitations of her sex in her place and time but determined to overcome them.

Scott Ellis hovers on the edges as the dark, handsome stranger Mr Guasto, playing him as a brooding hunk of anguish, adding an air of mystery to the mix.

Janet Amsden provides the light relief as the semi-drunken maid Biddy Thricefold in a robust performance of seeming spontaneity.

So good is Merrick’s central performance, Meeks’ play might still have worked had it focused more on Nesbit’s life and less on the supernatural. But that is another story.

As befits a play of ideas as well as scares, designer Alex Swarbrick gets in on the act, making the most of the enclosed space in the Studio to reflect the play’s meaning as well creating a creepy atmosphere. As the barrier between this world and the other melts away as Edith in the Dark progresses, the threadbare nature of the attic walls makes it seem as if the very room itself is dissolving.

Can you see the final twist coming? Possibly.

Is Edith in the Dark ever anything less than entertaining and thought-provoking? No.

Has Meeks thrown too much into the pudding overall? Perhaps.

Do I want to wait another 20 years before Harrogate Theatre commissions another new play of this impressively high quality? Definitely not.

Edith in the Dark runs at Harrogate Theatre Studio until January 5.

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