“Downton Abbey” takes a turn for the supernatural in Sadie Jones's stylishly eccentric comedy of manners The Uninvited Guests.
It's the Edwardian era, and 20-year-old Emerald Torrington is about to have a birthday she'll never forget. Sterne, the family's large manor house, has fallen on hard times, and there's barely enough coal for the fires and enough chocolate for a birthday cake. Emerald's mildly despised stepfather, Edward Swift, is off on a last-ditch effort to save the old pile for Emerald's beautiful, vague mother, Charlotte. Nineteen-year-old Clovis is in the middle of a two-year fit of petulance over his mother's new marriage, while youngest daughter Imogen, better known as “Smudge,” is left to her own devices, which include climbing all over the slate roof and bringing ponies up to the second floor.
Downstairs, cook/housekeeper Florence Trieves, who was once as celebrated a beauty as Charlotte, labors to create a birthday feast for Emerald out of mock turtle soup, smelts, Boeuf en croute, and rabbit fricassee.
The guests include Emerald's oldest friend, Patience Sutton, and her brother, Ernest, as well as local businessman John Buchanan.
Then a train derails, and Sterne becomes an inhospitable refugee camp for the victims. Charlotte's solution to having 15 or 20 shell-shocked third-class passengers arrive on her doorstep is to lock them in the morning room and forget about them. If you must serve them tea, fine, but they surely don't expect to be fed. (Readers who prefer likable characters: This is not the book for you. Anglophiles who admire a biting sense of humor and a tinge of the Gothic, pull up a chair.)
The birthday party takes a sinister turn when one of people on the train, Charles Traversham-Beechers, manages to finagle his way to a seat at the table. Stranger still, he seems to already know Charlotte, who isn't exactly delighted to renew the acquaintance.
Jones, whose “Small Wars” recreated life on Cyprus during the 1950s, here slyly sends up the Edwardian era so lovingly fetishized on PBS. Far from an elegant evening, Emerald's birthday dinner descends into an out-of-control ruckus, even before Traversham-Beechers' nasty party games poison the atmosphere. (Or is that the odd smell coming from the passengers?)