Philip Meeks’ ghostly three-hander, Edith in the Dark, is that rare piece: a dramatised horror story that is clever, entertaining and surprising. However, it is not without its flaws, though the gravity of these varies according to the type of play you’d like to see.
The opening is a slow burn, with the main character, Edith Nesbit (author of The Railway Children) greeting a nervous young man (Scott Ellis) – a seeming interloper into her household’s Christmas festivities – and creeping him out with her assertive manner and penchant for dead lilies, not to mention her repulsion for “fans” and Christmas.
Actress Blue Merrick imparts to the character of Edith a strong and memorable presence, which draws us into the play in spite of the lengthy speeches she lays on the unsuspecting “guest”, and she has just enough of a mischievous glint in her eye and swing in her step to hint at the stories she could tell.
The pace picks up sharply when Edith does indeed begin to share her tales, but those of her own life are not the focus here. Instead, the talented cast (ably completed by Rebecca Mahon as Biddy the maid) act out all the parts required by the gothic and slightly hammy ghost stories that Nesbit penned in her youth, whilst “writing from the heart” (she tells us frankly that if she could have her way, the climax of The Railway Children would contain far more blood and gore, and far fewer survivors).
While in the main the female characters are stronger than the male, several of the ghostly parts are played gender-blind (heralded by Ellis suddenly leaping to life as a doomed young woman from the past), and the actors make swift and startling switches between sexes, ages and personalities. These excerpts are energetic and superbly lit against an atmospheric set, with transitions between the “present” scene and the stories “in the dark” extremely well-handled, but, though they are entertaining enough in themselves, it is difficult not to hanker for the real story, to hear what it is that makes Edith say that “nothing you can make up is worse than reality”. Even the pseudo-reality of the “present” storyline’s supernatural element bears more relation to Nesbit’s make-believe horror stories than to her true world, that is rarely faced head on. The tantalising hints about her life both past and present suggest another direction this play could take – one with higher stakes and greater internal drama; for, despite the bumps in the dark, there is no real conflict in shadows.
Ultimately, this is a gently humorous and enjoyable play that is slightly long and not as dark or deep as it might be, but that certainly awakens the audience’s interest in the life and mind of Nesbit.