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BWW Reviews: Amnesia, Skullduggery, and a Scary Cliff: THE EDGE OF DARKNESS at Cockpit in Court

In a cottage on a seaside cliff in England about a century ago, a young woman comes home, reunited after three years with her loving parents after a mysterious disappearance.  Afflicted with amnesia, she recalls nothing, and her new surroundings are unfamiliar to her.  But when a bell rings and she finds a cake knife in her hand, she is given to trances, during which she screams threats in Russian.  Who is she really?  What are her parents up to?  What is the manservant doing breaking into and rifling through a locked desk?  Why is the maidservant bringing the young woman gloves that were supposed to have been hers, but are clearly too large?  Who is the blackmailer who turns up in the dead of night?  And why all the references to the treacherous path along the top of the cliff, and the darkness of the sea below at night?

With questions like these, we are clearly in that country W.H. Auden called “The Guilty Vicarage,” the cozy Edenic rural spot in Little England which sin has for some unaccountable reason invaded.  Most of the best classical British detective fiction is situated here.  It is a familiar and cheering ride.  We know going in that by the end all confusion will be dispelled, the evildoers identified and dealt with, the secret heroes unmasked, and The Commonwealth restored.  And in the meantime inexplicable and scary things will occur.  The audience will experience the frisson of fear without any real danger of distress after the smoke finally clears.

This particular visit to Guilty Vicarage country is called The Edge of Darkness, written by Brian Clemens, a fine British artisan of sensational drama, the principal screenwriter of The Avengers TV series, who came up through the British equivalent of the Roger Corman school of hackwork.  Among the titles of his plays are I’m Only Going to Kill Her, All About Murder, and Anybody for Murder?  The Edge of Darkness, first produced in 1975, is, in other words, production line material from the workshop of a craftsman.

I’m pleased to report that the Cockpit in Court revival of the play rolls this standard model thriller out with much aplomb.  The British accents are firmly in place (with one unfortunate exception, Bobby Romadka, III as Hardy, the manservant), the period clothes are nicely done and attractive (thanks to costume designer James J. Fasching), the lighting properly gloomy and sinister, and the direction (by Linda Chambers), moves the audience briskly through the funhouse, not tipping much of the playwright’s hand until the last two minutes.

There is a clear standout in the cast: Neena Boyle, as Penny the maid.  If I’m remembering this properly, someone once described Flora Poste, the heroine of Stella Gibbons’ 1932 satire Cold Comfort Farm, as a Jane Austen character plunked down in the middle of an Emily Bronte setting; Penny is somewhat similar, the main difference being that she lacks any pretensions to gentility.  Otherwise, it is all the same: relentless good cheer, empathy, and practicality, rained down upon a household-ful of devious, dishonest, and moody folk.  But the temperature goes up a few degrees whenever Boyle, all flaming red hair and smiles, is onstage.   She almost seems like a refugee from the production of Hairspray, playing simultaneously in the mainstage theater below.

It may be, though, that Boyle has an unfair advantage, in that the best lines and the most attractive personality are bestowed on her character.  Kudos as well, therefore, to the rest of the cast, Ashley Fain as the neurasthenic Emma (who may or may not be the lost-lost daughter), Thom Peters and Susan Liberati as her putative parents, and Ted Burge, hamming it up as the mysterious blackmailer with a foreign accent.  Rodmadka, if he could learn to sound British more of the time, would otherwise be fine as the obviously phony manservant.

If you’re in the mood for undemanding and occasionally spine-tingling summer entertainment, this is a good bet.

The Edge of Darkness, by Brian Clemens, through August 7, at Cockpit in Court, Cabaret Theater, Community College of Baltimore County.  443-840-ARTS (2787), or e-mail  Tickets $16.


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