Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor – Park Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Paul Morrissey

Director: Shilpa T-Hyland

It was a dark and stormy night. Or, more accurately, it was just one stormy night on a small island off Scotland where there is never a storm not coming.

On this island, in mid-December, 1900, the three lighthouse keepers (the “wickies”) recorded their last entry in the logbook. Ships soon noticed the light was not shining and reports were made. By the 26th of the month, when the weather calmed enough to allow men to land on the rock and investigate, the light had been dark for nearly two weeks. They were greeted with half-eaten food, an overturned chair, missing coats and not a single remaining keeper.

Paul Morrisey’s slow-burning new play imagines the scenes and conversations that made up the wickie’s final few weeks on the isolated spot. New boy Thomas (Jamie Quinn) has come to the lighthouse for his first stint as a keeper. All of 28 years old, he’s a useful vehicle for the play to ride on as the other characters (the taciturn Donald, played by Graeme Dalling, and the chief keeper James Ducat, played by Ewan Steward) explain the work, the location, and the traumatic recent history of this newly built lighthouse.

Elements of the supernatural come in – a child’s death in this lonely and extremely isolated spot lingers on in the walls. It’s the base of much of the gently rising and falling tension throughout the piece and much meat is made of it. Though there’s very little that actually happens in this play, the supernatural elements and the tension helps us gain access to the vital material – the men themselves and their attempts to stay resilient and sane in this punishing place. We cover a lot of personal ground efficiently, ideas of survivor guilt, trauma, alcohol abuse, folk history and sense of duty. Rich material, and in the hands of these three actors it’s absorbing and highly engaging.

Performances notwithstanding, there’s some chinks in Wickies as a whole. The three men grow closer, in their way, and we can see a cautious friendship emerging. There’s a warmth there that dilutes the sense of hardship and atmosphere of isolation that is trying to break through. The Thomas character feels out of place as well. He’s a 28-year-old fisherman working off the rough Scottish coast, and seems too green and naive for that background.

Director Shilpa T-Hyland has done a fine job communicating the stillness of the place, ensuring Zoë Hurwitz’s fantastic set is used to its full potential. And it carries elegantly some of the smart points in Morrissey’s scripting – the repetitiveness of the life on the island and the comfort of routine.

Dense with meaning, no answer to the mystery it highlights, and a lot of talking without much action, this story could have been a slog. In these expert hands it feels fresh, and offers an intriguing and grown-up view on a real-world mystery.

Runs until 31 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Dense with meaning

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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