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Criterion Theatre (via YouTube) review: Edith in the Beginning

Edith in the Beginning, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, via YouTube, to Friday, November 27.

Act one, scene one: Enter Keith Railton stage right. Or left? Who cares as long as his entrance takes you back to pre-viral times? Quite long times back indeed. Keith has trodden the boards at the Criterion for many a year.

On this occasion he’s not on stage, however. He’s in a country churchyard in East Anglia in the role of farmer-turned-archaeologist Basil Brown. After removing his flat cap, he is laying flowers on the grave of the recently deceased Edith Pretty, the widowed landowner who had employed him to unearth invaluable Anglo-Saxon treasures from the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. (Time for a reality check, perhaps. Keith was, in fact, at home in Earlsdon after making himself up, dressing himself up and filming himself up in the front bedroom. The other actors in this extraordinarily inventive production were doing much the same in their own homes).

Suitably socially distanced, they inter-act on screen in little boxes. Which sounds a bit limited and claustrophobic.

Far from it. Under Anne-marie Greene’s direction, we are not only taken into a real country churchyard but also an expansive country estate with a distinctive rural landscape around it. At one point we’re also back on the battlefields of the Western Front where Edith served as a Red Cross nurse and her late husband Frank was an army captain. The filming becomes grey at this point – a touching combination of horrific photographs and poetic imagery.

What Wilfred Owen called “war and the pity of war” is a recurring theme of the production. After all, the digging up of invaders’ remains takes place in the summer of 1938 as the second worldwide conflict of the 20th century is about to unfold.

Edith Pretty was not far off 60 when she died in 1942. Lucy Hayton (pictured above) looks nowhere near that age. But she takes on the role with an authority that you might expect from an old girl of Roedean School - albeit one tinged with sad reflectiveness of a war-time nurse. Some good humour, too, comes out in her relationship with the rustic Railton as the two main characters.

Jon Elves makes the most of his cameo role as a judge with a distinctive speech impediment. And Helen Withers makes a somewhat surreal appearance as Queen Raedwaeld, manifesting herself at Mrs Pretty’s mansion and calling for “a horn of sac”. Instead she has to settle for a dry sherry. Cheers, Queen R. And here’s to a welcome return to some Criterion stalwarts who’ll be treading the boards again one of these days. Or nights. Soon, we hope, in post-vaccine-times. Chris Arnot

Barbara Goulden writes:

If you know you're watching too much television during lockdown then why not take a break and book seats in your own armchairs for the latest offering from the Criterion? Screening is only available until next Friday (Nov 27) although, once downloaded, you can watch this play more than once. And may well want to as there's a lot to take in. Not least the true story that culminated in the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon king, his 80 foot ship and a hoard of golden treasure that lay undisturbed on Suffolk farmland for more than 1,000 years. An ingenious combination of pre-recorded scenes, state-of-the-art technology and precisely calibrated acting makes the re-creation of this drama onto our small screens almost as extraordinary as the discovery of the skeleton of King Redwaeld at Sutton Hoo back in the 1930s. And that's where the story starts with Lucy Hayton taking on the role of widow Edith Pretty, who engages self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds surrounding her manor house. In a variety of extremely stylish vintage dresses, we learn Edith's story, then learn of her late husband's experiences during the First World War. Meanwhile, Keith Railton presents Basil as the choleric, flat-capped, flat-footed "man with a plan" who brooks no interference from outsiders...least of all those who've been to university. There are class divisions, as there would have been at the time. But I enjoyed Anne-marie Greene's assured direction and the clever camerawork that allowed Basil and Edith to exchange maps and mugs of tea despite physically standing in rooms many miles apart. But even Basil can't envisage the fantasy element of this great story as it seems his disturbance of the land also unearths a ghostly visitation from the ancient king's queen... who offers Edith advice but really can't get her head round this Christianity business. Few Criterion regulars will be surprised to see Helen Withers having great fun with his part. Then there's Jon Elves, at the coroner's inquest, who decides to give himself a wonderful lisp as he examines the "tweasures" that will in truth set off earthquakes throughout the archaeological world. This is a lyrical slice of nostalgia that inevitably at times lacks the vitality of a live performance. For all that it is ultimately satisfying and well-worth downloading a ticket.

Tickets for Edith in the Beginning by Karen Forbes are available from the Criterion website. The play can then be watched on YouTube as many times as you like before Friday, November 27.


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