The Late Edwina Black (Aldeburgh)
The dead cannot hurt the living. Or so we are always reassured. But is that necessarily true?
It's one of those one-off phenomenona which the theatre as well as novel-publishing sometimes throws up. The Late Edwina Black first hit our stages in 1949, the work of two unknowns – William Dinner and William Morum – and ha continued to hold audiences ever since.
We're in a country town in 1901. Mrs Black has just died and her funeral is planned. Her long-serving housekeeper Ellen (Eliza McClelland) and companion Elizabeth Graham (Kate Middleton) are making the final preparations for the church service and the reception afterwards.
Then there is an unexpected arrival, Henry Martin (Michael Shaw), who won't initially state his business in this house of mourning but insists on seeing the bereaved husband, schoolmaster Gregory (Peter Hoggart).
This apparently-natural death proves to be destructive in more than one way. Edwina may be in her coffin but she still proves to be a life-wrecker, a destroyer of happiness, Medusa and Medea to those mot intimately connected to her.
To build and maintain the suspense required collaboration between the director, the designer and the actors. Richard Frost has conjured a suitably gloomy living-room set from Maurice Rubens, all dark walls with black-and-white etchings and heavy drapes.
Of the players, Shaw has perhaps the easiest part. McClelland's Ellen is a slightly younger woman that the usual cross between Mrs Hudson and Mrs Danvers; you can believe in her devotion as well as in the twists to it. Middleton and Hoggart have a trickier path to tread.
We have to sympathise with the predicament of these two, who think hat they have escaped a future of drudgery imposed by a demanding woman and reinforced by the wealth she alone had controlled. Marriage and Lake Como beckon, but plans for the future can fade into mere mirage when the law starts asking questions – and demands truthful answers.
The trouble is that neither actor presents a portrait which highlights what is likeable in either Elizabeth or Gregory. So it all becomes a slightly too heavy morality play. Yes, it's a psychological thriller in a well-established genre. But surely we still need to feel an engagement with, some empathy for its two leading characters.
The Late Edwina Black runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 30 August and transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 1 and 13 September.