Edith – In the Beginning (Sewell Barn Theatre – 23 April 2022)
The Edith referred to in the title is Edith Pretty, who lived at Sutton Hoo House, which some may remember was the site of an archaeological dig where a Saxon burial ship was unearthed in 1939.
There was a Netflix film, called ‘The Dig’ released last year with Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes playing the lead roles. This play was actually written a few years earlier than the Netflix film, and was commissioned by The National Trust to commemorate the 80th anniversary of what was obviously a remarkable discovery. Having now seen both, although there was some crossover in terms of the story that both the film and the play told, the play looked a little closer at Edith’s background and her relationship with her deceased husband, Frank.
In terms of the show, it was an enjoyable and interesting watch. Andy Lofthouse, who played the unorthodox archaeologist, Basil Brown, was a joy of understatement. He bristled with a slightly awkward air about him and it worked a treat, and a perfect contrast to his educated host. The only criticism perhaps was with his projection, but that could’ve been down to an obvious focus on his Suffolk accent, which was excellent by the way.
Lauren Baston produced a commanding performance as Edith Pretty, and was at times utterly mesmerising to both watch and listen to. It might be overly critical of me to say that some of the lines were delivered a little too melodramatic to my taste, given that they were telling a real story with real people, but I feel that's very much a choice of the director rather than the actor.
The Saxon Queen, the wife of King Riedwald (who was laid to rest inside the burial ship they unearthed), appeared in the first half to apparently provide counsel for Edith. She was played with aplomb by Judi Daykin, and the song she exited her scene with and later reprised in the second half, provided quite a haunting, hairs-on-end sort of moment, which was unexpected.
Throughout the show, images were projected onto a screen to provide the occasional visual aid to the audience, but these were used fairly sparingly, adding a bit of poignancy when they were shown. The deceased Frank Pretty appeared in the show as a disembodied voice, played beautifully I have to say, by Chad Mason. There was also solid support in the first half provided by Diane Webb and Melanie Peter as the war-time photographer and reporter respectively. They were very minor parts, but they helped to provide some context as to Edith Pretty's background in terms of the First World War and the opinions she formed because of it. As is often the case, the first half was a tad on the slow side, but sometimes I guess it's a necessary evil when the first Act is very much about setting the scene. But the second half got off to a pacey start when Jonathan Cooke appeared and put in a confident turn as the coroner while quizzing Edith about the find. He really set the pace nicely for the second half., and in actual fact, the second half moved quickly enough that it almost took me by surprise when the show came to a close. There was one slightly laughable, perhaps cringeworthy moment, when Edith was reading out a letter sent to her by Winston Churchill. It’s perhaps a little unkind of me, as I do recognise that voicing Churchill is an unenviable task, but it did sound a bit of a dodgy parody, if I’m honest. That aside, and that really is just me nit-picking, it was a really accomplished performance all round. The cast and crew deserve lots of praise for a really absorbing and interesting show. The Sewell Barn Theatre is a lovely, intimate setting and it’s ideal for this sort of show, so I’d urge anyone to show their support if they can.