Review: The Signalman. Nottingham Theatre Royal

The Signalman is a ‘Rumpus Theatre Company’ thriller based on the story of the same name written by none other than the legendary Mr Charles Dickens. The story was first published in 1866, just one year after Dickens himself was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash. Whilst Dickens escaped that serious derailment unharmed, many others aboard were less fortunate. His brush with death on the railway that day is said to have fired the author’s imagination and led to the creation of this story.

The action of the play is set in 1860 in an isolated railway siding signal-box and centres around two characters – the eponymous signalman, Joseph Standcot (John Goodrum) and a young traveller he encounters along the way by the name of Richard Brightwell (Pavan Maru).

Act One opens impressively with some quite stunning visual and audio effects. A train thunders through a tunnel complete with atmospheric haze for steam and smoke and magnificent lighting effects. Director Karen Henson has really pulled out all the stops here and the audience have to resist the urge to run for safety and out of the path of this oncoming fiery beast of an engine. Kudos here to lighting design by Keith Tuttle and sound by David Gilbrook. This is such a spectacularly memorable theatrical experience and the play has barely begun!

It comes as something of a relief when the train thunders into the distance and the dialogue begins in earnest. Goodrum invests Standcot with a haunted look and there is something wonderfully ill-at-ease about the way he holds himself. It is easy to believe that he lives a fairly solitary life working in this signal box beside the spooky dark mouth of a tunnel. Standcot encounters a mysterious traveller by the name of Brightwell, seemingly from out of nowhere. Maru gives Brightwell a gentle disposition and he is at once a likeable companion. Standcot reveals to Brightwell that he has been subjected to hauntings by a terrifying spectre on several occasions, and after each of these ghostly visitations, there has been a tragedy upon this very stretch of railway. These hauntings serve as premonitions, warnings if you will, about which the signalman is understandably distressed and completely powerless to prevent. Brightwell appears to be a sympathetic ear and certainly does more listening than speaking. But who exactly is he and how does he relate to these ghostly goings-on? We are on tenterhooks!

In Act Two, the young Brightwell takes the lead in telling Standcot his story. Maru and Goodrum have a magnificent exchange which is full of energy, emotion and intrigue. Whilst the play is quite wordy by nature, and potentially risks being quite static, these two talented performers keep our attention and it never feels like the pace is too slow.

It has been somewhat evident all the way through that these two stories will intersect at some point, that there is more to the meeting of these two men than mere coincidence, but exactly how the collision of stories occurs is precisely the reason that you need to go and see this production. The suspense in Act Two is magnificent – the two actors handle the powerful dialogue to perfection telling a story that really does bring on the goosebumps.  The staging and lighting all play their part in painting quite a terrifying and thrilling picture by way of conclusion. The finale involves a quite superb, if brief, appearance by David Gilbrook as the train driver.

Mr Dickens is of course notoriously famous for giving us tales of visitors with warnings from beyond the grave and his work, in true Victorian fashion, is invested with morality messages and infused with societal concern. I feel that this tale does not disappoint in either of these regards. How do our lives impact upon those of others? What are the warning signs that we are failing to interpret? What power do we have to prevent the tragedies that lie in wait for us?  

You really don’t want to miss this train – it will thrill you and make you think. Catch it while it is at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham (only until 13th September).

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