This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Set in the drawing room of a wealthy house in the early 20th Century, The Late Edwina Black is an elegant and subtle psychological thriller with delightful period aesthetics, marred only by the sporadically manifest failings of its plot.
Peter Hoggart plays Gregory Black, widow of the recently deceased Edwina. Gregory’s love affair with Elizabeth Graham (Kate Middleton), his late wife’s companion, has enjoyed new vitality since Edwina’s death and, despite the snide disapproval of the housekeeper (Eliza McClelland), their plans to escape to Italy together are nearing fruition. When Inspector Henry Martin (Michael Shaw) calls to inform them that Edwina’s death was not from natural causes, however, the lovers are thrown into confusion; suspicion, intrigue and fear reign with Edwina’s malevolent presence casting a shadow over everything.
There is appropriate and commendable understatement in the performances of the whole cast. The achingly classy early-20th Century style of the piece lends itself to reserved characters; emotion should be largely implicit, physicality kept to a minimum, and only at moments of true drama should flashes of temper, anxiety, or fear be seen. Hoggart and Middleton are adept in this; their interaction is an enjoyably restrained battle of verbose dialogue and meaningful looks. McClelland is equally estimable – the housekeeper’s unspoken disapproval emanates perceptibly – as is Shaw’s eternally courteous Inspector Martin, whose probing enquiries are executed with assurance.
This is not a classic whodunit. There is no host of comically varied suspects. Combining the engaging formula of J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls, with chillingly eerie hints of Gothic horror, the play instead focuses on the changing relationship between Gregory and Elizabeth, with Inspector Martin’s investigation merely providing a structure for this exploration. As the plot develops and revelations abound, the pair’s emotions career from passionate affection to unconcealed horror, from heated indignation to pleading supplication. At times this progression borders on tedium, but for the most part it acts as a powerful dialogue on the fragility of love.
This arrangement, with Gregory and Elizabeth’s affair taking centre stage is undoubtedly appropriate, as the plot itself is somewhat lacking in coherence. It feels as if each piece of evidence, each deduction, and each revelation is slightly artificial, as if every plot development was included individually without consideration to the others. On the whole, the compelling interaction between the two lovers, coupled with the laudably understated performances from all involved, effectively hide this lack of consistency.
The set is a fantastically furnished drawing room of a wealthy house, complete with cluttered desk, cushioned armchair and heaving bookcase. During the play’s tenser, dimly lit scenes, the furniture of the room casts looming shadows that take on a distinctly sinister appearance. Constant references to the ‘spirit of Edwina watching us’ instil a delectable air of dread, and Inspector Martin’s comment on the impressionability of humans proves true as the audience begin to imagine disturbing figures lurking in the darkness.
The play’s greatest strength is in its subtlety. Despite the contrivance of the plot, the interaction between characters, the development of the relationship between Gregory and Elizabeth, and the effective use of lighting combine to create a notably powerful piece of theatre.