From ArtsGroupie, the producers of Kitty: Queen of the Washhouse and A Portrait of William Roscoe, comes a slice of winter terror with a new adaptation from David Griffiths, who also directs, of the much-loved Charles Dickens supernatural classic, The Signalman.
Following the arrival of a somewhat lost and larger than life visitor (John Maguire) at a remote signal box on a dark winter night, the solitary railway signalman (Zoran Blackie) tells him of a spectre that has been haunting him with each appearance preceding a tragic event on the railway on which the signalman works, a deep cutting near a tunnel entrance on a lonely stretch of the railway line where he controls the movement of the passing trains and is alerted to danger by his fellow signalmen via the telegraph and alarms.
Three times he has received phantom warnings of danger when his bell rings in a fashion only he can hear, with each warning followed by the appearance of the spectre calling out to him before a terrible accident takes place, with the first incident a reference to an 1861 train crash near Brighton, and the second, in a slight change to the original unless I misheard, involving the mysterious death of a young man on a passing train. The final warning is a premonition of the signalman’s own death: is it the end of the line for him?
The intimate setting at Metal at Edge Hill Station in Liverpool, the oldest active passenger station in the world dating from 1830, was inspired as the sound effects were supplemented by that of real trains running alongside the performance venue. Griffiths’ haunting and atmospheric sound design fuelled further with fog effects created a mood of mystery augmented by a clever use of light, dark, and shade in Hayley Jeffrey and Tim Saint’s lighting design, and whose props were befitting of the Victorian period in which the piece is set and matched by the costumes of both characters.
The resulting large and overbearing shadows played out across the white backdrop reinforcing the suspense of the piece; I wonder whether with a little choreography these could be used to enhance certain lines as they are delivered: a bit of an ask but one to think about perhaps at this or other venues.
Both actors provided strong performances with Maguire resplendent as a well-intentioned stranger, although the gender change in the second incident, unless I misheard, took away the potential of another layer of intrigue as to how this tale might unfold as we discover his own personal loss.
Blackie was outstanding, the nightmares that he recounted etched across his gaunt face, his haunted look maintained throughout making every audience member believe he really had seen something.
Dickens is notoriously wordy and Griffiths, bar a couple of moments of repetition, has done well to capture the salient elements in a suspenseful production lasting approximately one hour.
Metal Liverpool serves as an artists hub and creative space for its neighbourhood, focusing on engaging and empowering local people and the diverse communities in the surrounding areas through art, education and social events. Further details https://metalculture.com/
ArtsGroupie CIC is a community interest company that is promoting and providing access to the arts in the North West and beyond through the development of touring theatre and music productions, educational workshops and heritage conservation projects. Further details https://www.artsgroupie.org/
The Signalman tours around the North-West this November although I anticipate it returning to haunt us for many more years to come. Details on venues and tickets at https://www.artsgroupie.org/theatre-events/the-signalman/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 4th November 2023
North West End UK Rating: