Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Edith working at her desk, already a celebrated author, in 1903.

Image copyright - Edith Nesbit archive/ McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa

Edith in the Dark

Hall Green Little Theatre


Edith Nesbit is best known for The Railway Children, indeed known for little else by many, yet she was a prolific writer and poet, a follower of William Morris, the Marxist textile designer, a founder of the social democratic Fabian Society – and she wrote gruesome horror stories.

And it is four of those stories which cast a dark shadow in the already gloomy attic writing room of Edith on Christmas Eve, a room where she had escaped from a party hosted by her husband, Hubert Bland, a relationship which is best described as strained.

He was a fully paid up member of the ancient order of philanderers with his mistress, or at least one of them, living with them with Edith having to adopt his awayday offspring. Edith retaliated in kind by taking on a string of lovers and we open with the possibility of another as she is alone in her attic refuge with a mysterious visitor, a Mr Guasto, who it transpires sneaked into the party uninvited, just for a moment in the hope of catching a glimpse of Edith.

But a young lady had fainted and Guasto had caught her as she fell, and carried her to an adjoining bedroom and so he has remained, concerned about her well-being, while Edith wonders if perhaps the young, not unattractive visitor, might be equally concerned with her, should we say, less literary and more earthy charms.

Sadly, for her at least, Guasto is an avid fan, pleading for a reading . . . from The Railway Children. Edith hates fans, hates readings, hates The Railway Children with a vengeance, and even hates children, at least since her son Fabian died during a routine tonsil operation when he was 15; she also hates Christmas and parties and her feelings for Hubert seem to drift between indifference and loathing. Ebenezer Scrooge is the life and soul of the party by comparison. 


Jean Wilde as Biddy Thricefold. Pictures: Roy Palmer.

The pair are joined by housekeeper Biddy Thricefold, and her supplies of punch, as Edith decides to agree to a reading, but on her own terms, her own choice; thus we have four of her horror stories where the main character in each case is death, which delights Biddy who enjoys a good frightener almost as much as a good punch, the more gruesome and gory the better.

We have tales of frozen bodies found on graves of dead lovers, of a man, or in this case, woman eating weed and a gold-digging colonel, a marriage made in . . . possibly heaven, certainly not this world though, as the wishes and hopes of a jilted lover have a calamitous consequence and finally we have a tale of pacts with the devil, who appears as a Cockney chambermaid, involving mysterious paintings in the devil’s ebony frames, a nod to Dorian Gray perhaps, and an all-consuming fire which leaves tragedy smoldering in the ashes.

That is only half of it though, the trio, Edith, Gusto and Biddy, have to play every character in each of the four tales of the unexpected as Roald Dahl might have put it, and they manage it brilliantly.

Zofja Zolna gives us an Edith who finds solace in . . . well nothing really. She dislikes pretty much everyone and everything, delighting in the bleak despair of her horror stories, tales of lovers who can only be united in death.

The admiring Guasto is aghast telling her: “you destroy young lives with no reason and no mercy!"


Zofja Zolna as Edith

But that it appears is the point as Edith tells him matter of factly, "It is to remind us that we must live our lives to the full.”.

Matter of fact being a way of life, When Edith tries to seduce Guasto, who resists her advances, there is no emotion, no romance, you suspect not even desire, it is just an invitation to matter of fact sex. Even then you are not sure if it is seen as merely something to do, a diversion to break the monotony, or just another little act of revenge on Hubert.

But around the humourless Edith, Zofja gives us a chambermaid, a real one, a chambermaid, the devil one, young girls, thwarted lovers, a barefoot figure of tragedy and all manner of characters all with different accents, different demeanour, different looks.

She is matched in that by Richard Woodward’s Guasto, who spends much of his time as a tragic lover whether ending frozen on a grave, wealthy beyond imagination but dead on his way to the church, a lame lad with an assignation with a strange woman to an organ grinder's tune, and even as a young, giddy girl with a penchant for murder.


Richard Woodward as Mr Guasto

Most remarkable of all though is Jean Wilde as Biddy. Two weeks ago it was Christine Bland in the part, but a throat problem and medical advice to rest to prevent permanent damage, meant she had to step down, and Jean stepped up to produce a stellar performance as the no-nonsense, Northern housekeeper, as well as a West Country rat catcher with old sayings by the dozen, an organ grinder, a colonel  looking to marry into money and a lover locked in a portrait. An admirable feat in the timeframe.

These are all exceptional performances by the trio, though, creating a host of disparate characters merely by facial expression, voice and accents. The play works well  in the new look studio where a changed seating layout gives a black box setting. Christine, who took on the role of assistant to director Roy Palmer, still appears, incidentally, as Dopey Maud, a silent addition to the cast list, lighting the candles on the splendid set at the start and extinguishing them at the end.

Palmer’s set is dark and gloomy decked with Edith’s favourite dead flowers and credit must go to lighting and sound in the hands of Tal Bainbridge, Dan Honor, Linda Neale and Matthew Parker.

This is a candlelit Victorian attic, gloomy, with dark corners, and the lighting conveys that beautifully with just enough light to see the set with characters highlighted just enough to stand out. It is really well balanced while the sound from cello to piano, a party background, and the odd thing going bump in the night, all add to the ghostly atmosphere.

Phillip Meeks’ play is a cheerless affair. Nesbit’s tales of horror are just that with death the only escape, five tales of horror. Oh, yes, did I mention there is an extra story, not written by Nesbit but Meeks, a twist in the tail, a twist you won’t see, not until the end and even then not to its conclusion, but you will feel it, and you will give a little shudder in the darkness as the ending becomes clear.

There will have been a few more shudders along the way, not enough to frighten the horses perhaps, but enough to raise a few hairs on the neck. Lovely stuff to chill the cockles of your heart, beautifully acted and produced. To 21-03-20.

Roger Clarke


The four tales in question are John Charington's Wedding, Uncle Abraham's Romance  and The Ebony Frame from Grim Tales and The Pavilion.

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