Review: Edith in the Dark @ Edinburgh Fringe

Posted by Matt Foley on August 25, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

Review: Edith in the Dark @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, St Stephen’s Church, Monday August 24th 2015

 

From L-R Scott Ellis(Guasto), Blue Merrick (Edith Nesbitt), and Rebcca Mahon (Biddy Thricefold) - photo by Sam Atkins

From L-R: Scott Ellis (Guasto) Blue Merrick (Edith Nesbit) and Rebcca Mahon (Biddy Thricefold) – photo by Sam Atkins

Among scholars and enthusiasts of Gothic literature, at least, it is well known that E. Nesbit wrote tales of terror – although she is more widely famed for children’s classics The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Railway Children (1906), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and many others. Forming some of her first endeavours as a storyteller in prose, three recognised collections of grim and uncanny tales all appeared by Nesbit in the 1890s. It is only her poems and verse that date to a period earlier than her first macabre collection Something Wrong (1893). In spite of her skill as a writer, Nesbit’s Gothic work, remains, it is fair to say, under-appreciated, and close readings of her uncanny tales in the academy are scarce. Yet, such work may have a popular appeal; one that is reflected in the David Stuart Davies edited collection of her stories The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror (2006), which is published under Wordsworth’s flagship series Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural. An original play by Philip Meeks, and currently showing at this month’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival (@ St. Stephen’s Church until August 30th), Edith in the Dark takes Nesbit’s supernatural tales as its inspiration and innovatively embeds three of her stories (‘The Pavilion’,  ‘Uncle Abraham’s Romance’ and ‘The Ebony Frame’) into a frame narrative that darkly reimagines the author’s later life.

With strong performances by Blue Merrick (E. Nesbit), Scott Ellis (the infatuated impostor Mr Guasto) and Rebbeca Mahon (as maid Biddy Thricefold) delivered in a darkly humorous and self-referential tone befitting of its subject, Meeks’ story is neatly complemented by Keith Hukin’s invigorating direction and an unhomely mise en scène befitting of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. True to the biographical details, Merrick’s Nesbit is bereft; she is continuing to mourn the loss of her son Fabian who died at 15, and she meditates upon the tragedy to such a degree that it makes her return to her macabre tales later in life and favour them over her writing for children. Merrick’s anger as Nesbit is palpable: unsurprising given that her husband was adulterous, and their marriage tempestuous. Feisty, playful and world-weary, the Nesbit of Edith in the Dark regards her early uncanny stories as more menacing than those of that ‘silly’ Cambridge don M R James.

Blue Merrick as Edith Nesbit (photo Sam Atkins)

Blue Merrick as Edith Nesbit (photo Sam Atkins)

Replete with the paraphernalia of the Gothic – the dead flowers in a vase that never leave the stage, the thuds and bangs that make the audience jump – Edith in the Dark also confronts expectations of gender. That the nom de plume E. Nesbit suggests androgyny is referred to in the framing dialogue between Merrick and Ellis, but the telling of the embedded stories, too, are interestingly handled: Merrick, Ellis, and Mahon all ventriloquize Nesbit’s characters so as to inhabit the rather rigidly defined, late-Victorian ideas of masculinity and femininity. So, as well as resurrecting Nesbit’s writing, the play also comments retrospectively upon the performativity of gender and provides a contemporary and playful angle through which to approach the material: Ellis, for instance, plays the faltering Amelia Davenant of ‘The Pavilion’, while, in the second, brief story, Mahon takes on the role of Nesbit’s spurned Uncle Abraham, who looks back upon a ghostly love affair of his youth. There is much, then, in the play to be commended. Of interest to both ghost story enthusiasts and Nesbit scholars, Edith in the Dark is an accomplished theatrical piece: a joyous, intriguing homage to the weird early turns of Nesbit’s fiction.

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