This play is best described as a curiosity. It is a gentle and perceptive work that looks closely at two people and their working relationship. The context is the discovery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk of a complete ship full of treasure that was the resting place of Raedwald an early Saxon king. Edith Pretty (Lauren Baston) owns the Sutton Hoo estate, and commissions a local self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown (Andy Lofthouse) to investigate the series of barrows or mounds near her home. She is a confident and educated woman with firm ideas about how she wants the investigation carried out, and he is her choice to do the work. He is a locally born working man with a passion for archaeology and a methodical approach now recognised as exemplary, although at the time he was sidelined by interfering London ‘experts’.
The play was originally commissioned for performance at Sutton Hoo by the National Trust and this gives us a small problem in that the setting for that performance would have filled in some of the gaps in the play. Anyone who has visited Sutton Hoo will know more of this story and the huge impact made by this discovery but this play sometimes feels as if it is in a quiet backroom while history is being made in the garden outside. Perhaps this is a device to enable us to concentrate on the main theme of the play, the relationship between Edith and Basil. There are some further distractions as we hear readings of Frank Pretty’s letters to his long time fiancée and later wife Edith. He had proposed to her regularly for over twenty years before she accepted his proposal. They had a son, Robert, but Frank died when the lad was just four. The son is mentioned often and clearly had a close friendship with Basil.
Another strange device used in the play is the intervention, or visitation even, of Raedwald’s queen (Judi Daykin), who pops in on Edith late one evening and nicks an apple from the fruit bowl while dispensing some undoubtedly sound advice. She appears twice in the play, and each time her departure is marked by a rather fine ballad sung by Judi. The play dips into a number of different times in Edith’s life, but this 1000 year old character is taking us into Tardis territory.
The whimsical array of theatrical styles and devices used by the playwright may divide opinions, but the Sewell Barn Company have done a fine job in bringing this interesting work to the Norwich stage for the first time. Lauren and Andy give faultless and engaging performances that help to show the divisions of class and confidence between the two main characters, and the warmth and trust that builds as their work goes on. Judy Daykin looks suitably Saxon and regal, and absolutely stuns the audience with her unaccompanied rendition of the two songs in the play.
Melanie Peter and Diane Webb appear as an almost cartoonish image of contemporary press teams, being used in a First World War vignette with Edith to explain her later disdain for the craft of journalism as propagandists obscuring the truth. As if that would happen now… There are voiceovers in verse and narration to help us along, with Chad Mason giving a voice to the epistles from the late Frank.
There is something of a vogue these days in what might be called ‘multi media’ productions. This play does not go into the full high impact versions beloved to some directors but is just starting to head in that direction. If you like this variety of stimuli to be presented together you will love this production, but even if that is not your thing this is at heart a sensitive and enjoyable depiction of a relationship that brought us one of the most momentous historic discoveries of the Twentieth Century. That is some achievement, and Director Robert Little and the Sewell Barn team can be proud of their accomplished production of Edith – In the Beginning
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 21 April 2022
Edith: In the Beginning will be performed at the Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 4BB from Thursday 21 April to Saturday 30 April 2022. Tickets are available online at £10 and £11 from TicketSource via www.sewellbarn.org, also by phone via 0333 6663366. Booking fees are now included in the ticket prices.