Blue Merrick, Edinburgh Fringe, Edith in the Dark, Edith Nesbit, Ghosts, Harrogate Theatre in association with Reform Theatre Company, M.R. James, Philip Meeks, Rebecca Mahon, Saint Stephen's Church, Scott Ellis, St Stephen’s Centre, Theatre Review
Up into the far North today, past Winterfell, beyond the Wall, until I am finally at one of the most northernmost points of the Fringe, the St Stephen’s Centre in Stockbridge. It is based in the previously abandoned Saint Stephen’s Church and this magnificent Georgian venue seems to be at last getting the usage that it should have always had by right. Yet we don’t go up those extraordinary steps and through those great doors since the theatre is down in the basement. And it is revealed to be the sort of draughty community theatre (with hard chairs and the audience on an eye-level with the actors’ feet) which every community usually has.
“Edith in the Dark” is written by the Fringe First award-winning Philip Meeks and it is brought to the Fringe by Harrogate Theatre. The play is all too ready to capitalise on the “MR James Industry” and the middle-class appetite for such ghost stories as Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black, but it is not adept enough at serving up the spirits. So maybe it is for the best that this play is rattling about down in the basement.
Edith Nesbit came from the same generation of ghost writers as MR James and EF Benson. Blue Merrick portrays her as an aloof modernist aristocrat. On a dark night (tick) at Christmas (tick), a mysterious stranger called Mr Guasto (James Ellis) turns up at her country house (tick) and he requests that she tell some stories (tick). She, of course, chooses ghost stories (tick) and a chuckling Jamesian servant (double tick), played by Rebecca Mahon, is happy to assist milady. But there is no luxurious sense of a fireside audience settling comfortably as those who are meant to be listening to the stories end up performing them for us, the real audience. “Edith in the Dark” thus acquires much of the same visual frustration as a one-man play, with a lot of scrabbling to and fro and flipping between different times and scenes. The storytelling is energetic but we are back in the present day and starting on the next story as soon as we have crashed through the last one. Melodramatic pyrotechnics attempt to compensate for the absence of any genuine suspense, narrative climaxes, or scariness.
I had the impression that everything intelligent in this play was being provided by Nesbit and yet her ghost stories don’t appear to be suited to this kind of adaptation. She begins by scoffing at “the silly Professor [MR] James” and his capering bedsheets, but her own stories, at least in these renditions, resemble undistinguished specimens from the same genre. Insufficient realism is planted within Ellis’ character and so the final twist in the tale comes across as flimsy. The servant Thricefold functions as an impromptu chaperone and her anti-erotic presence neutralises any chemistry between Nesbit, the fierce older woman, and Guasto, the needy younger man.
The scene in which Nesbit derides her own railway children as “delinquents” and imagines them pissing themselves before a train wreck felt to me, at the time, like a jewel to be treasured. Now, however, I have my qualms. It seems needlessly crude and I doubt that Nesbit would have really become a beloved children’s author had she been so cynical about her creations.
A play which was purely about Nesbit might have been interesting, in the sense that anything from history is always interesting. An adaptation of one of her ghost stories might have been even more worthwhile. But “Edith in the Dark” is a bodge, a hodgepodge, which tries to use Nesbit to explain her stories or to use the stories to explain Nesbit. The result is a blurred scribble of an author and her fiction.