Writer: Charles Dickens/M.R. James
Adapter: Simon Corble/Nobby Dimon
Director: Vivienne Garnett
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
What North Country Theatre does is good old-fashioned barnstorming, not there are any actual barns on their astonishing tour of nearly 50 venues, only one of them for more than one performance. Most are village halls, there are a few theatres and arts centres and a couple of churches, including at Kirkby Overblow. But it’s heart-warming to see the cast of two selling programmes before the start, giving the house rules and safety warnings and taking a major part in shifting the scenery between the two plays and during the second one, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You.
North Country Theatre takes professional theatre out into the community, and this is community theatre par excellence. Tiny communities such as Kirkby Overblow organise publicity, front of house, etc., and get good attendances. In these days of predicating the decline of villages on the closing of schools, post offices and shops (even pubs), how about theatre as a focus for village life?
It was a privilege to join the audience in All Saints, Kirkby Overblow, but Nightmares in Norfolk, while a pleasantly varied and cleverly acted evening, is not North Country Theatre at the top of its game. A decade or more ago Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble devised a version of 39 Steps that miraculously managed to be part of the ripping yarns tradition while at the same time spoofing it hilariously. This went on to be a huge national and international success. In Nightmares in Norfolk, two tales of the supernatural, the melodrama and the comedy are separated and the result is enjoyable but more routine.
Simon Cordle’s adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman is done absolutely straight, though he develops the character of the narrator somewhat and gives him the splendid name of Montagu Furzan. The story is pretty familiar from GCSE syllabuses and the widely-toured Middle Ground production and the potential visual impact of the climax is impossible for a company playing it out on an improvised stage between nave and chancel.
For all that, Mark Cronfield’s haunted Signalman and Nobby Dimon’s eccentric curiosity hunter, Furzan, give intelligent conviction to the tale of a man troubled by strange apparitions that he is certain presage some imminent disaster. Johnny Buck’s ingenious construction – inside and outside the signal box – works well; the tunnel we have to imagine.
Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, though preserving the bare bones of the M.R. James story, is much more fun. Nobby Dimon sends up half the clichés of the horror/ghost genre and, though a bit uneven, the result is totally engaging. Professor Parkin is an innocent sceptic, who knows – or thinks he knows – the truth behind faith and champions evidence over belief, but who is incapable of understanding people. Dimon, leaving quotations and adages hanging in the air, accidentally offending most of the population of Norfolk, is a delight.
In this version of the story, Professor Parkin goes in search of an ancient Templar chapel in the Norfolk seaside village where his irritating Common Room companion, Jolyon Rogers, was born. All the walking clichés of horror movies prove to be relatives of Rogers which gives Cronfield the chance to go ever further over the top and to perfect his manic grin and stare.
The manipulation of furniture (notably bed and screen) to create different sets is imaginative and Vivienne Garnett’s direction makes up for the rather static Signalman. The music and lighting effects are suitably atmospheric and the odd moment of genuine terror among the general daftness causes more of a frisson than anything in the more serious play.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Contributed