"horror stories framed in biography"
by Michael Gray for remotegoat on 22/12/18

A spooky story always sits well at Christmas, and Philip Meeks’ingenious piece, originally commissioned for Harrogate, offers us plenty, mostly from the pen of E Nesbit, of Railway Children fame.

The action begins in the author’s attic writing room, with a black brass-bound trunk and a classical “pavilion” hinting at horrors to come.

The stories, from early in Nesbit’s oeuvre – Grim Tales was published in 1893 - are acted out with gusto by three actors, happily swapping accents and gender. In the framing narrative, Nesbit herself, “a very modern woman” not above seeking “sauce for the goose”, is compellingly played by Claire Bibby, who also produces. Grace Dunne is the splendidly named Biddy Thricefold, servant and companion to the writer, mother to the children Nesbit raises as her own, mistress to her erring husband.
No wonder, perhaps, that the stories take a dark view of love and marriage, the wedding often thwarted or delayed by death. And yet, since they were penned before her own unhappiness with Hubert Bland, they are, as she says after we have seen Uncle Abraham’s Romance, “a premonition”.

The third presence is the pale, mysterious Mr Guasto [Nesbit - or maybe Meeks - seems to think that his name has deadly connotations], played by Jeremy Small. He’s a fervent admirer of our author’s tales - “a huge fan” as he anachronistically puts it.
The most successful story dramatically is The Pavilion, a later work, in which Small plays Emilia, Bibby her friend Ernestine, and Dunne a terrific double as Colonel Braggart and the aged Oswald Frit.

There’s a clever nod to a gorier end to the children from Three Chimneys, sent up in tableaux at the top of part two. And Edith recalls grisly horrors in Bordeaux.
But it is the final moments which chill us most, in which Guasto’s true nature is revealed, and the fainting girl in the next room falls victim to a family curse.
The Bridewell is the last date in Norwich-based Baroque’s tour. Adam Morley’s production makes good use of the limited space, achieving an entertaining balance between the fun and the frights.

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