Edith in the Dark, Philip Meeks' Christmas offering in Harrogate's Studio Theatre, is an ingenious affair that manages to tick several boxes most entertainingly in a mere hour and a half of stage time. If you like a Christmas ghost story or four, here they are in a portmanteau presentation, but in addition the linking story turns into a chiller of its own and, for good measure, Meeks gives us a portrayal of author Edith Nesbit which, though undoubtedly not 100% accurate, is full of insight.
Meeks claims for Nesbit's ghost stories that they are not "polite and genteel" and sets about proving it by using tales where the uncanny danger of the other world is balanced by a murderous evil in middle-class England: Nesbit was under no illusions about the "niceness" of sporty chaps and charming young ladies. These tales are enacted – with enough seriousness to cause shudders and enough parodic acting to breed laughs – by the three characters in the play, often playing against type or switching sex.
However, the main story proves more than a framing device. As presented initially, a young woman has collapsed at Hubert Bland's Christmas Eve party – Bland was Edith Nesbit's thoroughly unsatisfactory husband – and has been saved by a stranger Mr Guasto. He and Edith Nesbit have brought her to an attic bedroom and spend the time in the neighbouring workroom where Nesbit's advances on the young man continue unhampered by the appearance of housekeeper Biddy Thricefold.
As the three of them share tales, we learn of Nesbit's personal tragedies (true) and her distaste for being seen as a cosy children's author (quite possible), but the key events leading to the shocking conclusion come from her fiction, not her life.
Keith Hukin's direction is taut and precise, with atmospheric sound from Gerrard Fletcher, and the production is well served by three capable and versatile actors. Blue Merrick is a very convincing Edith Nesbit, tartly intelligent, poised, ironic and melancholy, and also has fun characterising schemers of both sexes. Janet Amsden brings folksy eccentricity to the role of Biddy and excels in such male caricatures as the bluff colonel on the make. Scott Ellis manages as demure a young lady as you can get from a man with a beard, but in his main role – Mr Guasto – he exudes mystery.
Edith in the Dark continues at Harrogate Theatres until 5 January 2014.