Failing to find the fear factor

Jack Shepherd as the signalman in Dicken's ghostly story

Classic Ghosts

Lichfield Garrick

***

IT IS a strange thing about humans that we like being terrified, not in fear of our lives mind you, or from mortal danger, or even things that go bump in our own particular lonely hour of night, but a nice, warm, comfortable dose of fear complete with shivers down the spine and perhaps a box of Maltesers.

Otherwise why would horror films, ghost trains, chambers of horror and, these days to a lesser extent, ghost stories be so popular and while this double bill of chill does raise a few shivers it sadly never manages to goad the imagination into racing.

The opener is O, Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, by celebrated Victorian writer of ghost stories M R James from his 1904 book Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the title coming from a Robert Burns poem of 1793.

Directed and designed by Michael Lunney, the man behind producers Middle Ground Theatre  Company, it uses the video wall technique he employed in his recent Cadfael, this time to  show the seashore and mysterious figures running o the beach.

Lunney gives us a clever, if somewhat cluttered set of The Globe Inn by the beach at Burnstow on the East Coast in 1907. A patch of raised sand at the back of the stage provides a sort of mini set as a burial ground, beach and golf course – while ghostly cast in darkness in frontt prepare the set of guest room and inn reception for the next scene.

Enter the guest, academic Prof Perkins, played by well known stage actor Jack Shepherd who is perhaps best known as Wycliffe from TV, who has arrived for a golfing holiday with Col Wilson played by another TV regular Terrence Hardiman.

Attending to their needs is Barnaby Fitch played with a sort of superior subservience, suggesting proprietor rather than manager, by Dickin Ashworth.

Terrence Hardiman, left, as the traveller who befriends the signalman in his one man box

The Prof finds a mysterious whistle in an old Knights Templar’s burial ground with a Latin inscription translated as "Who is this who is coming?", gives it a blow and suddenly the constant wind turns into a raging storm.

The next day we have someone waving from his room whn there is no one there and when the Prof goes to bed we have noises from his wardrobe, doors opening, windows opening, sheets on a second bed in his room folding back on their own and finally some moaning spirit, seen for a split second, who seems to leg it through the window leaving the Prof a gibbering wreck.

There are some well-executed special effects and a few moments when breath stops in that split second when fear takes hold but in truth without knowing the provenance or significance of the whistle, whose ghost we are dealing with and who the figures running about the beach are this is hardly the stuff of nightmares.

The delicious discomfort of theatrical terror comes from fear of the unknown, but come on, meet us halfway we have to know enough about the unknown to be frightened of it.

Adapted by Margaret May Hobbs the tension is built quietly and the expectation of being scared witless is all there but then, rather like the ghost that pops out of the dark in a fairground ghost train it is all over and gone and we are back in the daylight, or in this case the bar with an ice cream. With no explanation, no reason to prey on the imagination, there is nothing to be frightened of. One member of the audience summed it up as the curtain fell and the house lights were slow to appear asking: “Is that it or is there another bit? It was and there wasn’t.

There was no fault with the acting just nothing to really say or act out.

The second of the double header was The Signalman, Charles Dickens’ ghost story adapted by Francis Evelyn.

Dickens grew up in the railway age and almost died in a rail crash in 1865, a year before short story was published.

The accident was at Staplehurst in Kent when the Folkstone to London boat train derailed on a viaduct where a length of track had been removed in engineering work when a timetable had been misread and a man with a red warning flag was only 554 yards away instead of the regulation 1,000.

Ten people died and, although Dickens did not work this real life incident into his story, Evelyn has introduced it into his adaptation with dramatic effect.

Tragedy in a tunnel with the traveller and rail inspector played by Dicken Ashworth

Dickens did mention a fatal collision between two trains in a tunnel in which 22 people had died five years earlier, the Clayton Tunnel crash near Brighton, which had been the worst rail disaster up to that time, a news sensation that would have been known by just about all his readers.

In this new tale Shepherd is a signalman in a lonely, one-man box on a single track line by the entrance to a tunnel.

Into his life comes a traveller, Hardiman again, a man staying at a nearby hotel who is fascinated by trains and all things rail. As a friendship develops we discover the signalman’s fears and his frightening secret. He is tormented be a mysterious figure who appears by the tunnel entrance to herald an imminent disaster. Each time he is seen death follows – and the apparition is back!

Any more detail and the plot is spoiled but suffice to say this is a vast improvement on whistle up the wind in the first half, adding drama, relevance and even purpose to the mystery.

Lunney has produced a gloriously realistic set, a nicely ghostly spectre, suitable smoke and effects for trains and even a convincing express thundering through the tunnel.

Sadly crackling popping sound from speakers, which surely will be quickly sorted, marred the performance of both stories and perhaps we could have had less of the gale force wind noises as a constant background and with a stronger first story this could have been a more frightening and less frustrating night. To 08-02-14. 

Roger Clarke 

Jack Shepherd talks about his dual roles in It'll be all fright on the night

Classic Ghosts runs at Wolverhamton Grand from Feb 12-15

Home Lichfield Garrick Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre