The Fascinating Story of Mrs Pretty
Review comments about this production
"an extraordinarily inventive production...Lucy Hayton takes on the role with an authority that you might expect from an old girl of Roedean School... Some good humour, too, comes out in her relationship with the rustic Keith Railton as the two main characters...here’s to a welcome return to some Criterion stalwarts who’ll be treading the boards again one of these days" Chris Arnot
"An ingenious combination of pre-recorded scenes, state-of-the-art technology and precisely calibrated acting makes the re-creation of this drama onto our small screens almost as extraordinary as the discovery of the skeleton of King Redwaeld at Sutton Hoo back in the 1930s." Barbara Goulden, Elementarywhatson.
"...lockdown has forced many changes upon us...and here the techies at the Criterion shine. Using split screen technology and a series of picturesque backdrops filmed on domestic equipment and presented on a YouTube platform they evoke a dialogue between the two main characters that allows their relationship to develop... An enjoyable and moving account of a hugely important moment in the history of Britain... and the eternal drama of friendship that underpinned it." Nick Le Mesurier, Leamington Courier
Read the full reviews here.
About the play
‘Edith in the Beginning’ was originally commissioned by Stuff of Dreams theatre company for the National Trust and researched and written by Karen Forbes.
The play explores the life of Edith Pretty, the woman responsible for the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon treasure, which many consider to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in British history. However, there is so much more to the story of this remarkable woman. Karen Forbes’ play shines a light on Edith’s heroic wartime endeavours, her marriage to Frank Pretty, and her fond alliance with Ipswich Museum archaeologist, Basil Brown. Most intriguing is her decision to decline a CBE - the reason for which remains a mystery to this day.
The production was originally staged outdoors at the National Trust Sutton Hoo site in August 2019 on the porch of Tranmer House, Edith Pretty’s former home. The play was subsequently performed in November 2019 in partnership with Ipswich Museum and Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich.
In May 2020, Karen, who is a longstanding Criterion Company Member, offered the play as one of our lockdown virtual play readings. Following the very successful reading, Karen generously offered us the play rights-free in order to allow us to experiment with the online form. Over June, July and August, with Anne-marie Greene as Director working with Karen as an integral part of the creative team, we rehearsed and live-recorded the play from our home spaces using Zoom and then Steve Brown worked tirelessly to edit the scenes into a film.
In line with our EDI policy, we undertake an EDI impact assessment of all our artistic programming. 'Edith In the Beginning' by Karen Forbes does not have any specific diversity message at its centre. The play is based around real life historical people with confirmed gender and ethnic identities. It is understandable if casting choices are made with these specific identities in mind although within the performance there is space for casting to be race/ethnicity, gender and age flexible.
Review by Chris Arnot
Act one, scene one: enter Keith Railton stage right. Or left? Who cares as long as his entrance takes you back to pre-viral times?Quite long times back indeed. Keith has trodden the boards at the Criterion for many a year.
On this occasion he’s not on stage, however. He’s in a country churchyard in East Anglia in the role of farmer-turned-archaeologist Basil Brown. After removing his flat cap, he is laying flowers on the grave of the recently deceased Edith Pretty, the widowed landowner who had employed him to unearth invaluable Anglo-Saxon treasures from the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.
(Time for a reality check, perhaps. Keith was, in fact, at home in Earlsdon after making himself up, dressing himself up and filming himself up in the front bedroom. The other actors in this extraordinarily inventive production were doing much the same in their own homes.)
Suitably socially distanced, they inter-act on screen in little boxes. Which sounds a bit limited and claustrophobic.
Far from it. Under Anne-marie Greene’s direction, we are not only taken into a real country churchyard but also an expansive country estate with a distinctive rural landscape around it.
At one point we’re also back on the battlefields of the Western Front where Edith served as a Red Cross nurse and her late husband Frank was an army captain. The filming becomes grey at this point – a touching combination of horrific photographs and poetic imagery.
What Wilfred Owen called “war and the pity of war” is a recurring theme of the production. After all, the digging up of invaders’ remains takes place in the summer of 1938 as the second worldwide conflict of the 20th century is about to unfold?
Edith Pretty was not far off 60 when she died in 1942. Lucy Hayton looks nowhere near that age. But she takes on the role with an authority that you might expect from an old girl of Roedean School -- albeit one tinged with sad reflectiveness of a war-time nurse. Some good humour, too, comes out in her relationship with the rustic Railton as the two main characters.
Jon Elves makes the most of his cameo role as a judge with a distinctive speech impediment. And Helen Withers makes a somewhat surreal appearance as Queen Raedwaeld, manifesting herself at Mrs Pretty’s mansion and calling for “a horn of sac”. Instead she has to settle for a dry sherry.
Cheers, Queen R. And here’s to a welcome return to some Criterion stalwarts who’ll be treading the boards again one of these days. Or nights. Soon, we hope, in post-vaccine-altimes.
Review by Barbara Goulden
If you know you're watching too much television during lockdown then why not take a break and book seats in your own armchairs for the latest offering from the Criterion?
Screening is only available until next Friday (Nov 27) although, once downloaded, you can watch this play more than once. And may well want to as there's a lot to take in. Not least the true story that culminated in the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon king, his 80 foot ship and a hoard of golden treasure that lay undisturbed on Suffolk farmland for more than 1,000 years.
An ingenious combination of pre-recorded scenes, state-of-the-art technology and precisely calibrated acting makes the re-creation of this drama onto our small screens almost as extraordinary as the discovery of the skeleton of King Redwaeld at Sutton Hoo back in the 1930s. And that's where the story starts with Lucy Hayton taking on the role of widow Edith Pretty, who engages self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds surrounding her manor house. In a variety of extremely stylish vintage dresses, we learn Edith's story, then learn of her late husband's experiences during the First World War.
Meanwhile, Keith Railton presents Basil as the choleric, flat-capped, flat-footed "man with a plan" who brooks no interference from outsiders...least of all those who've been to university. There are class divisions, as there would have been at the time. But I enjoyed Anne-marie Greene's assured direction and the clever camerawork that allowed Basil and Edith to exchange maps and mugs of tea despite physically standing in rooms many miles apart. But even Basil can't envisage the fantasy element of this great story as it seems his disturbance of the land also unearths a ghostly visitation from the ancient king's queen... who offers Edith advice but really can't get her head round this Christianity business. Few Criterion regulars will be surprised to see Helen Withers having great fun with his part. Then there's Jon Elves, at the coroner's inquest, who decides to give himself a wonderful lisp as he examines the "tweasures" that will in truth set off earthquakes throughout the archaeological world.
This is a lyrical slice of nostalgia that inevitably at times lacks the vitality of a live performance. For all that it is ultimately satisfying and well-worth downloading a ticket.
Review by Nick Le Mesurier
The Anglo Saxon treasures discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939 were some of the most importantarchaeological findings ever found, almost as famous perhaps as the tomb of Tutankhamun and the Viking burials in Scandinavia. They proved that the Anglo Saxons were a sophisticated people capable of creating astonishing works of beauty and intricacy in gold and silver. Their discovery came at a time when Britain’s morale urgently needed boosting, and it served as valuable propaganda as well as a source of scientific and historical knowledge.
Behind the science lay another story, that of a remarkable friendship, which Edith in the Beginning tastefully explores. The owner of the land, Edith Pretty (Lucy Hyton) was already interested in archaeology. Having been recently widowed she preferred the explorations on her land of thirteen mounds, long suspected of containing ancient artefacts, to be conducted in privacy. Instead of a team of professionals, she hired Basil Brown (Keith Railton), a local man with an amateur’s passion for his subject and a wealth of self-acquired knowledge. But Basil is a curmudgeonly old soul, intent on conducting investigations his own way, at his own pace. In a rich Suffolk burr he warns Mrs Pretty there may be something hidden there, or there may be nothing.
We know now that there was a lot, an enormous horde of priceless treasures buried along with their owner, King Raedwald, a 7th century king, in a longship, most of which was recovered. But it’s the human drama that is at stake here. At first Basil and Edith Pretty do not much like each other, but a gradual respect emerges, driven in part by the relationship between her young son Robert (not voiced) and the childless old man. The voice of Edith’s dead husband, Frank (Ted McGowan) cuts through the tale in the form of letters he wrote from the front line in WW1, beautiful letters of love for the men under his command and for the land he had left behind. Also visiting the scene is the ghost of Queen Raedwald (Helen Withers), herself widowed and able to share the wisdom of an older woman across the ages and bring comfort to the grieving Edith.
Normally the technicians are the backroom boys and girls in a play, serving quietly behind the scenes and only visible if things go wrong. But lockdown has forced many changes upon us, not least the importance of video as a primary medium, and here the techies at the Criterion, particularly Steve Brown, film editor and Paul Forey, sound designer, as well as director Anne Marie Greene, shine. Using split screen technology and a series of picturesque backdrops filmed on domestic equipment and presented on a YouTube platform, they evoke a dialogue between the two main characters that allows their relationship to develop. It has its limitations, in that each character is parenthesised in a box on screen speaking to the other across a divide that is almost, but not quite, bridged. The relationship comes across as a little strained. But such it was in the actual drama, for each was a very different character, seemingly with little in common with the other, save their love of the land and what it contained and meant.
It is a strange experience watching a play that was performed with the actors in lockdown miles apart. It takes on many of the demands of film, particularly the emphasis on voice and facial expressions, and the importance of good editing. The form lends itself to a reflective sort of drama, which this play is, rather than one where action, excitement and movement are the keys, and a company has to find new ways of creating tension to hold the audience’s attention. The script was adapted to meet the new format by Karen Forbes and given free of charge. I found the pace here a little too steady, the inner and outer conflicts implied as much as evoked. But the use of technology, though not as slick as might be expected on tv or film, was effective and enhanced the intimacy between two characters exploring new roles for themselves.
The only other qualm I have is with the character of the Coroner (Jon Elves) which was played to a satirical effect that wasn’t warranted, to my mind. It was a moment of comedy that seemed slightly misplaced.
But in every other respect this is an enjoyable and moving account of a hugely important moment in the history of Britain, both ancient and modern, and the eternal drama of friendship that underpinned it.