Monday, April 22

The Signalman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Most notable was how, with extreme economy (one actor, a sparse set and some carefully understated lighting and sound), this play generated such power, intensity and atmosphere. It’s set in 1919, forty years after the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 as Thomas Barclay, the signalman, now 64, re-lives the events of the horrific night. The sense of place is perfectly evoked by Jon Beale and Andy Cowan’s carefully constructed soundscape, the gulls, wind and rain a constant reminder of the vast expanse of a raging Tay estuary. Beneath a sky shaken and stirred by the swirling, gargantuan storm that hit Tayside that Sunday we’re immersed in the cosy confines of the signal box as Tom McGovern plays a haunted, traumatised Barclay, moving restlessly about the small set of coat-stand, desk and two chairs. He tells the story with humour too, this amenable, ‘ordinary’ character, who steadily reveals himself to be more puzzled than anything else.

One of the themes of the play concerns society’s desire to hold someone accountable for an accident and more often than not it’s the humble worker simply trying to do their job who is pushed into the firring line. Ultimately the architect of the bridge Sir Thomas Bouch was held largely responsible for not correctly supervising the quality of the materials or workmanship, but Barclay still had to endure his day(s) in court, a passage entertainingly related as Barclay imitates the judge, querying whether the wind that night had been at all ‘boisterous’.

McGovern’s portrayal of Barclay is fabulous, commanding our attention from start to finish, in no small part due to the fact it was he who suggested writer Peter Arnott script the play: Having undertaken a job in Dundee early in his career McGovern would wander the city, absorbing its history, flummoxed at the lack of any memorial to the victims of the disaster. Originally brought into being via a collaboration between Glasgow’s Oran Mor (A Play, a Pie and a Pint) and Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre back in 2019, this production was staged by Raw Material and Perth Theatre. The King’s is quite a setting, but it would be wonderful to see it again in smaller, more intimate surroundings. Maybe once fading Covid-related restrictions allow…

Reviewer: Roger Jacobs

Reviewed: 29th October 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★