The story of the surprising relationship between a rich widow and a self-taught archaeologist, and their success in unearthing one of the most important finds in English history, is at the heart of this East Anglian drama.
Karen Forbes’ play runs around the edges of the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the run-up to the Second World War, looking at the friendship that builds up between man with a trowel Basil Brown (played by Andy Lofthouse) and landowner Edith Pretty (Lauren Baston).
The script takes an unusual approach, with significant time spent in flashbacks reading wartime letters from deceased Frank Petty (voiced by Chad Mason) and comparatively little actually on the dig. We hear only in passing about the monumental finds made during the excavations, and fallings out between the dig team are referenced but not contextualised or explained. As a result, some of the more emotional scenes are pretty unfathomable without prior knowledge of the real life events.
One particular flashback, a prolonged monologue about Col Pretty’s horse Polly Hopkins, is particularly incongruous and does little to advance character understanding or the plot.
More successful is the dreamlike arrival of the ghost of the Queen to Raedwald – the Saxon king buried at Sutton Hoo – who has a cryptic chat with Edith, and two haunting songs.
Lofthouse is enjoyable as Brown, a likeable but gruff fellow with just enough sparkle to believe you might go to bat for him. As Edith, Baston has a little too much ‘jolly hockey sticks’ about her in the early scenes for someone so willing to defy societal expectations, but shows more metal later.
Judi Daykin stands out as The Queen, robust but caring, and handles her two acapella songs particularly well.
Robert Little’s direction makes this an even production of a fairly unbalanced play. It’s a curious piece that may please those with an interest and existing knowledge of local history, but the flaws in the script limit its appeal.
- Edith – In The Beginning runs until April 30 at Sewell Barn Theatre