By Jeremy Miles
Doppelgänger Productions: The Weevil in the Biscuit - Chaplin’s Cellar Bar, Boscombe.
Racked by a cough that threatened to literally tear his lungs apart, writer Robert Louis Stevenson moved to Bournemouth in a desperate bid to find a climate that would ease his health. By all accounts it was a miserable time but at least those three years spent living at Skerryvore in Westbourne proved creatively productive.
Between 1885 and 1887, though virtually housebound due to illness, Stevenson - already famous as the author of Trteasure Island - wrote the book Kidnapped, a number of poems and essays and, most famously, the psychological horror story The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Playwright John Foster and Doppelgänger Productions heve already explored the Jekyll and Hyde story in some depth. The Weevil in the Biscuit is a kind of prequel which finds Stevenson (Mark Freestone) and his American born wife Fanny (Elaine Harry) surviving Bournemouth…just.
Freestone is superb as the angry, feverish author who hates the suffocating gentility of his newly adopted town. He rants, raves and drinks water from the dog bowl. We get the picture. He’s a difficult person to live with, even at the best of times. Elaine Harry is wholly convincing as the tough but reliable and caring Fanny, the tower of strength who supports her man through tantrums and torpor even though she loathes Bournemouth almost as much as he does. While he dreams of the “black, wet fog” of Edinburgh and moans about Bournemouth as a “bloodless Arcadia" full of polite ladies with “parasols and opinions”, Fanny reads Walt Whitman and dreams of her native Indiana.
This is a fascinating play which engages the audience from the word go by casting them as members of a literary society visiting Skerryvore. It starts with a ‘tour’ of the grounds and a scene-setting song from the band Wikkaman before the visitors are welcomed into the Stevenson’s parlour where Robert lies on his day-bed, raging about his lot, coughing up blood and slipping in and out of a drug-induced sleep. It’s a front seat view of the author in the grip of the terrifying dreams that brought him the tale of Jekyll and Hyde.
Did Stevenson really scrawl his famous novella in just three days and nights? Did Fanny dismiss the story as a crass shilling shocker. And did the mortified author actually fling his first manuscript on the fire? We’ll never know, but Foster’s play probes these much repeated theories in style. There are wonderful exchanges between the Stevensons and many knowing observations aimed at the audience. We learn a lot about this mercurial writer.
Deftly directed by Charmaine K Parkin,The Weevil in the Biscuit makes the very most of the two talented actors, provides the perfect platform for Foster’s complex but accessible text and is enhanced by excellent set and costume designs by Marie Austin and Maria-Helena Farah. It’s on tour. Catch it if you can. I saw the play at Chaplin’s Cellar Bar - a perfect venue in terms of atmosphere, although rather challenging I imagine for the actors who were confined to a tiny stage. Well worth seeing though.
*The Weevil in the Biscuit is at Chaplin’s Cellar Bar again tonight (Monday 20th July) and at Scaplen’s Court in Poole on Friday 24th July. More information at www.doppelgangerproductions.com
Footnote: Remarkably Stevenson survived the consumption that nearly killed him. He set sail with Fanny for the South Seas and died in 1894 in Somoa from the effects of a stroke which he suffered while opening a bottle of wine. He was 44 years old.