THE HERALD, Scotland
You could call it whimsical or you could call it psychologically penetrating according to your toleration for imagined beings as signposts to minds more troubled than fey. So it is with Agatha Bodenham, the 1920s spinster heroine of this novella by the unknown Edith Olivier (an aunt apparently of Laurence Olivier) and acquaintance and contemporary of Henry James and Edith Wharton. This delightful adaptation by Lavinia Murray for the redoubtable Red Shift Theatre Company - now amazingly celebrating it's 21st year - however, shows Olivier sharing affinities with a writer much nearer home, J M Barrie - not the Barrie so much of Peter Pan (although elements of arrested development are certainly involved) but of Mary Rose, that lesser known play which deals in hauntings and unquiet spirits.
Agatha's unquiet spirit is triggered by the death of her mother and the realisation of the emptiness of her life. But rather than embarking on a hectic round of socialising, Agatha resorts to the past, resurrecting an imagined childhood friend, Clarissa - the only time, as the housemaid remarks, she remembers Agatha looking happy.
Into this tale of imagination and stunted life, Olivier weaves a fascinating web of post-Great War social comment from spiritualism (Clarissa is evident to other people) to lost opportunities (childlessness) to maternal possession (at one point, Agatha and the boy who has fallen in love with the corporeal Clarissa literally fight over her) and "letting go". Jonathan Holloway's greatest achievement, though, is the atmosphere engendered in a confined space, his versatile cast of four, Neil Irish's whirling, many-faceted bank of drawers, digital designs and Jon Nicholls's sweeping score.
The Love Child won't spook you out. But I defy you not to leave the theatre impressed by Holloway's creation and disturbed by Agatha's.
Just occasionally a show comes along that seems to capture the moment, it's preoccupations and obsessions. Edith Olivier's novella was written in 1927 and is now out of print. In this adaptation by Lavinia Murray for Red Shift Theatre Company, however, it seems startlingly modern in it's examination of both the consequences for women of childlessness and the way that successful motherhood means that the mother must learn to let her child grow up and leave her.
There are shades of Henry James's ghost stories here and also a touch of an inverse Peter Pan. At it's best the evening invokes both - as well as the sense of a finger-nail run very lightly up your spine, or an elusive figure glimpsed out of the corner of your eye in the mirror.
As a lonely only child, Agatha Bodenham had an invisible friend. Following the death of her mother, she is left alone in the world after her fiancé perishes in the last days of the Great War - and it is then that her invisible friend reappears. Agatha christens her Clarissa and adopts her. From the audience's point of view, there are several interesting things about the scenario: for one, if Clarissa is merely a figment of Agatha's imagination, why does everybody see her? The production supplies some clues in the spiritualist background of the affluent Bodenham family, and develops the idea further as Clarissa grows up and begins to try to separate from Agatha, who cannot let her go.
Red Shift is a company working on a small scale that has been around for almost 20 years. This unsettling, spiky, deliciously entertaining little show is a triumphant reminder of why the company has survived so long. I certainly don't subscribe to the idea that starving in a garret is good for artists, but sometimes necessity is the mother of invention - as shown here in Jonathan Holloway's clever direction, Neil Irish's cunning designs and Jon Nicholls's evocative music. Very enjoyable, but impossible for any woman, whether childless or a mother, to watch without squirming uncomfortably in her seat.