So in her story, the country-house setting and the dependence of two women upon each other echo reality. But Agatha Bodenham is a solitary character, living alone and friendless after the death of her mother, with only caring servants for company. She becomes obsessed with the occult until an unearthly young girl materialises (perhaps literally) and offers the close companionship that makes life worth living again. They become inseparable over the years, but the child matures into a young woman and Agatha's efforts to keep Clarissa to herself lead to disappointment and disaster.
Jonathan Holloway's multi-media production of Lavinia Murray's delicate adaptation for Red Shift Theatre Company effectively evokes the 1920s setting and deftly conjures up the mystery and suspense surrounding the appearance of the mysterious Clarissa. Jon Nicholl's haunting cinematic music underscores the action and enhances the mood and Neil Irish's set provides swishing gauzes that double as screens for back projections taking us straight to Wiltshire or Brighton. Its focal point is a gigantic customised chest of drawers, which in its turn doubles as bedroom, cliff and castle.
Irish dresses his cast in attractive period costume - except for the lonely spinster Agatha, who still affects the long skirts of her youth. Emma Bown's Agatha is affecting and discomfiting by turn in her aching, obsessive need. She builds a touching relationship with Nicola Harrison's Clarissa, at once lively and mysteriously fey. Rebecca Jenkins and Peter Eastland display terrific versatility playing other parts. Jenkins does a great comic turn as a hearty vicar's wife, emphasising the most unexpected words. Eastland is equally effective as a gardener with permanent sniffles and the young man who finds himself in a terrifying tug of love with Agatha.
Right at the start of its tour, the production has yet to achieve the flow that will give the narrative the urgent drive it needs. A programme note explains that the company finds contemporary resonance in Olivier's story for twenty-first century women, 'torn between childless independence and the need to leave a 'footprint' in the world'. I cannot believe it will be long before this experienced company's fine combination of physicality and multimedia ensure that these ideas hit home with truly effective force.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at The Maltings, St Albans)