Sunday, July 14

Ghosts on a Wire – Union Theatre

Linda Wilkinson could not have written a more topical play, confronting contemporary issues of inequality, power and class divides, the conflicts that consume society and the current energy problems.  It’s a story about power in all its forms, a story set in the past, all the while resonating into the future. 

Mary Shelley, Michael Faraday and William Blake are propelled into the late 1880s as ghosts, witnessing the results of the introduction of electricity to London. Or more specifically, to the wealthy north bank of the Thames, while the south bank coughs and splutters under the smoke, noise and detritus from the new power station. The electric company’s owners convince local residents and traders that clearing swathes of workers’ homes in Southwark would be progress, that building a coal-fired power station would provide work and income and be good for all, ignoring the rights of the working-class residents to have clean air and a peaceful environment.  As now, the developers come up against resistance, here in the figure of Octavia Hill who fights for ordinary people to have decent homes. Also as now, the developers win. It’s hard to imagine a world without electricity, but as with all major changes, it has both negative and positive results.

Between them, the impressive cast of six play thirteen characters, some recognised historical figures and a few local residents who populate the pub and the gentlemen’s club. What is particularly impressive is the ability of the cast to switch characters and remain totally believable in all the personas, the delineation between the roles perfectly achieved. This does become slightly jarring towards the end when Tom Neill’s Michael Faraday/Benny is changing back and forth with the addition or removal of a scarf.  Neill doesn’t miss a step though, deftly rescuing what could be too comical a moment. Also of particular note is Gerri Farrell’s Octavia Hill, a philanthropist, desirous of helping the poorest in society, but who is betrayed every time by the powerful men who have professed to wish to help her initiatives. It’s Farrell’s Mrs Cook though who has a scene-stealing moment as a medium who suddenly finds herself confronted by the ghosts of Shelley, Faraday and Blake. Andrew Fettes makes Dr Lyon Playfair, MP, who is involved with the CC Electric Company, the clear villain of the piece in his determination to make money from electricity without devolving into a moustache-twirling stereotype. In fact, all the characters are beautifully performed and are fleshed-out and credible.

The inclusion in the second act of a music-hall song sung by the whole cast is unnecessary. It’s undoubtedly well done, but the sudden change in tone stifles the flow of the story.

The design of the piece (Martin Butterworth and Chris Lince) is extremely well realised. Utilising the bare brick of the theatre space, projections of London views set the scenes, with just a few additional pieces of furniture required to change from Hill’s drawing room to the Shelfers’ pub or the gentlemen’s club patronised by the wealthy developers. 

Ghosts on a Wire is essentially a warning about the potential for progress to have negative consequences, at least for some in society. The audience is left wondering where the demands for power, political, societal and literal, will end. But this is also a story of resilience and love through it all.

Ghosts on a Wire is at the Union Theatre until 8th October.  Tickets are on sale from:

Reviewer: Carole Gordon

Reviewed: 26th September 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★