Beneath stone arches, ancient candelabras and tattered dust sheets lies the story of Cranholme Abbey, a tragedy told across a century and a half from 1873 as naive bride Elizabeth Ashmore arrives at what will be her new home, where on a stormy night the white bridal dress worn by the previous three countesses and now passed to Elizabeth blows in the wind.
The curse of Cranholme Abbey will take its due and the only legacy will be the whispers in the walls, as in 1943 heir to the estate Wing Commander Charles Cranholme introduces his squadron to his fiance Amelia Babbage, then in 2013 as young Viscount Charlie Cranholme takes his layabout friends for a weekend of partying in the country pile fallen to disrepair which he has just inherited.
Written by Tim Norton and Jo Billington who co-directed with Ed Sayer and Kathryn Norton-Smith, The Curse of Cranholme Abbey is a hugely ambitious staging for a Fringe production with over twenty cast in three time periods cross-cut with each other in only sixty minutes, such a whirlwind of entrances and exits that it is astonishing the whole runs as smoothly as the castors on the ever-shifting multipurpose modular set, one scene change involving a map particularly clever and effective.
Each of the three periods is distinct even as they echo into each other, history repeating in a downward spiral, the present characters linked to the past through tea sets wrapped in newspaper from August 1943, the past to the future through their hoped-for children who will inherit both the estate and the legacy.
The eighth Viscount Cranholme (Saul Barrett) has a cold marriage with Elizabeth (Vee Tames), expecting an heir, to be addressed as “sir” and no complications, but despite the warnings of hostile housekeeper Mrs Sinnett (Pearl Salamon White) she is determined to understand her new situation and uncover the identity of the mysterious pale child she has seen wandering the grounds.
While 2013 is marked by drunken irresponsible bickering, overacting somewhat to cover that this set of characters are the weakest of the three, 1943 is by far the strongest, possibly as that era has neither to set up nor resolve the story and can instead pause for breath as it recounts the affair of Charles and Amelia (Freddie Maher and Nandini Bulchandani), the only couple with genuine affection for each other, a doomed wartime love.
The contrast between the eras emphasised by their engagement party, Union Flag bunting and Glen Miller to get them in the mood, their happiness opens windows through which they witness the events of other times threaded through by Little Charles (George Jaques), cause of Elizabeth’s vexation and questioning seventy years previously.
Though cleverly constructed The Curse of Cranholme Abbey is a standard ghost story of a haunting across the generations whose ambition is wider than the hour into which it has been squeezed, but coming to an impressive and well-staged finale it is clear the ideas and talent are there to develop this into a first class show.