Considering that the North East Theatre Consortium’s blurb describes Queen Bee as a “contemporary gothic ghost story with a psychological twist”, it’s quite a cuddly affair. A new play by Margaret Wilkinson, it begins when agoraphobic Angel’s Northumberland home – unconnected to civilization’s circuit and early twentieth century in demeanour – is unexpectedly visited by Ruth, a psychiatric nurse. Seeing her attempts to treat Angel stonewalled, Ruth becomes suspicious of Angel’s melodramatic housekeeper Eusapia.
The script is the sort that it’s advisable to drink a dense coffee before following. The play opens with Eusapia treating Angel to a story that bears some resemblance to Angel’s own situation, but is detached in others. It’s a device that is employed frequently – indeed, it probably accounts for around a third of all dialogue and imbues the play with much of its cosy humour, ambiguity and nuance. Resultantly, the play is a mesh of interlocking hints, fastened together with all the delicate precision of a Chinese table tennis champion, but without any of the kind of literary turgidity that might make it less approachable.
That the play’s humour is mostly at the expense of its characters’ eccentricities is another reason for its friendly expression. As Eusapia, Joanna Holden capitalises on the script’s juicy potential during a scene in which her character forcefully animates a séance, showering laughter throughout the room. While Rachel Donovan and Karen Traynor, as Angel and Ruth respectively, don’t get comparable opportunities to hog the glory, their bee-fixated, childlike loopiness, on the one hand, and near-obsessive perseverance, on the other, transport the play from page to stage with spotless loyalty. Indeed, Donovan shows an almost tender sensitivity to the fact that her character is compelling despite being, in some ways, implausible.
Throughout the play, creaking sounds interrupt conversations. These are provided by composer and sound designer John Alder and his cello, in the corner of the stage, and are so frequent that the motif soon becomes crimson-cheeked with exhaustion. However, it’s smuggled so craftily into the flow of dialogue that it isn’t irritating: indeed, both as an overkill-based genre parody and a patch of turf from which the psychological humour of characters’ reactions springs, it’s effective.
I have only one reservation about this play – that some of the plot, including its main twist, is predictable. However, this doesn’t scar the show much, perhaps partly because its translucency may be another instance of Wilkinson teasing tired genre brickwork. The characters are so skilfully and lovingly drawn and played that what actually happens seems like a bit of an aside. If that isn’t a sign of good writing, I don’t know what is.