The Signalman – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Charles Dickens

Adaptor: James Nicholas

Director: Mark Webster

Being the first author of note to write a first-hand experience of one of England’s earliest railway disasters (Staplehurst) was something of a scoop for Charles Dickens. Those of a more inquisitive Dickensian bent infer that this event drove him to write the short story as a means of cauterising the psychological wounds after dragging fatally injured, dismembered victims from the wreckage. 

The vivid, descriptive intensity of Dickens’ prose in the opening chapter creates a sepulchral atmosphere of damp, claustrophobic dread. The steep, oozing walls of the railway cutting, all so compellingly strange to Victorian experience, seep into the subconscious imagining as an open grave, the personified ‘mouth’ of the tunnel, suggestive of the ‘Spectre’ beckoning before an open womb. Possibly.

What he didn’t report in his crash-disaster account was that he was travelling back from Paris after liaison d’amour with his mistress and her mother. With her Mum! Best not go there. Guilt will out, Charlie!

Director, Mark Webster, exploits the same ensemble cast from the earlier performance of Jane Eyre through an opaque lens of a very different mise en scene – sombre, compressed silences rent with calamitous passing trains. Tom Brewins’ sound design impacts with incremental, subtle intensity. Part narrative connotation, trains and bells are further underscored by brooding winds and unsettling ambient shivers. 

Further, Webster’s principal lighting design is an austere juxtaposition of chiaroscuro and nuanced red shading as The Signalman’s (James Nicholas) compelling narrative unfolds to the visiting stranger’s (Richard Buck) increasing unease. A creative diversion from the text sees Kimberley Bradshaw take the role of a landlady who relates the aftermath of the tunnel derailment and subsequent conflagration. She remains seated upstage in frozen repose in accented shade, her costume, by accident, more hopefully design, (props/costume, Simon Ravenhill) suggestive of a Whistler portrait.

The third visitation of the Spectre becomes The Signalman’s nemesis, told with flourishing intensity by train driver, Kaz Luckins. Altogether, a worthy adaptation from James Nicholas told with verve and subtle intensity to delight any audience: so, what a tragedy that schools are almost certainly excluded for the foreseeable future. How about that radio-play adaptation getting on YouTube? Meanwhile, a safety-conscious ‘real flame’ of sorts in the Signalman’s lamp really has to be a must in future performances.

Runs until 17 July 2021

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An intense tunnel vision

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