Edith in the Dark

Philip Meeks
Harrogate Theatre Royal
Harrogate Theatre Royal Studio

Blue Merrick, Scott Ellis and Janet Amsden in Edith in the Dark Credit: Sam Atkins
Blue Merrick, Janet Amsden and Scott Ellis in Edith in the Dark Credit: Sam Atkins
Scott Ellis and Blue Merrick in Edith in the Dark Credit: Sam Atkins

The ghost and horror stories of E Nesbitt are not as well-known as those children’s stories which have provided the bases of many beloved film and stage adaptations, and reveal a notably darker, more macabre and almost sadistic streak to the author. Philip Meeks’s adaptation of four such tales gleefully places this at the forefront, but an uneven staging leaves one neither chilled nor really enlightened as to what may have made Nesbitt tick.

The intention behind Harrogate Theatre’s first solo production of a brand new piece of work in more than 20 years is admirable, however. It seeks to provide an alternative to the sugary, child-friendly Christmas fare on offer in the main house’s pantomime, and in this the stories partially succeed.

Blue Merrick, as Nesbitt herself, etches a likeable, strong character from the text’s light biographical touch. The setting is Christmas Eve, and the sounds of a party downstairs at times rise to audibility through the more sombre atmosphere of the upstairs room—again, an apt image given the frivolity taking place in the theatre beneath. A stranger, Mr Guasto (Scott Ellis), has arrived and, requesting a reading, he joins her in narrating, and fluidly enacting, the tales of horror she chooses.

Here the cast play multiple roles with ease and efficiency, both Merrick and Ellis effectively becoming an array of other characters, from swaggering landed gents to gawping Yorkshire maids. It is done with humour and lightness of touch, yet here is one of the main limitations of the piece: rarely if ever is it genuinely chilling.

Nesbitt, in Meeks’s script, takes catty swipes at H G Wells and M R James, but, where the latter’s stories (on paper) succeed in truly cooling the blood, the evidence with which we’re presented here suggests Nesbitt’s takes of the horrific are paler imitations. Some of this is doubtless down to their construction: her tales of deals with the Devil, pale, shoeless women dancing by a grave and zombie plants lack genuine surprise. But much may simply be in the endeavour of staging them: so much true terror writing relies on suggestions and implications which lead the reader to generate their own mental horrors.

The acting is at times very good, though Janet Amsden as the maidservant Biddy Thricefold, while the most experienced performer, is also the weakest of the three. A lengthy near-final soliloquy from her feels under-rehearsed and unmarked for distinctive shifts. The writing, too, veers between some lovely imagery and some awkward attempts to build suspense. The worst such offence comes towards the end, when one character essentially says ‘wait, I’ve just remembered something crucial’, only for the others, for no reason suitably explained within the drama, to ignore this intervention for now and press on with another tangential story.

At times the production seems to acknowledge that it will not genuinely scare, and opts instead for some rather heavy-handed humour, which at its worst undermines any of the drama of the piece. So this is a well-meaning adaptation of some overlooked but seemingly uninspiring material, which falls flat due to uneven direction and performances, and perhaps a fundamental flaw in its approach.

Reviewer: Mark Smith