GHOSTS ON A WIRE at the Union Theatre
“This new work is brimming with ideas and interesting historical characters”
This new play by Linda Wilkinson is performed in the pertinent space a stone’s throw away from the historical area whence the story comes. The building of an electricity power station on the south bank of the Thames in the 1880s was to transform the lives of Londoners: on the north bank they received light and power; on the south bank their homes were demolished, and the area was filled with heat, smoke, noise and foul air.
An ensemble of six, directed by PK Taylor, tell the story. Everyone takes on double roles and are generally proficient despite some overly side-on positioning. Coming to terms too with a rather wordy text, the actors will need a few more performances to achieve a better fluency. A sparsely set stage and a bare back wall provides sufficient ambience. With mostly subdued lighting throughout, the use of foot lights and stage up-lighting proves especially effective and atmospheric.
Three cigar-smoking, ale-quaffing gentlemen represent the developers revelling in the knowledge that the redevelopment of Southwark is a money-making evil. In the south bank pub, The Watermans Arms we meet William and Sarah Shelfer (Ali Kemp). They are delighted that their pub is to be the only remaining hostelry after the demolition of the area, a delight that turns into horror once they discover that the noise of the power station makes living and working impossible. Andrew Fettes excels in his two contrasting roles: as both Lyon Playfair MP with his top hat and Etonian articulation, and pub landlord Shelfer with his flat cap and estuary vowels.
Playfair, representing the London Electric Company hopes to bring Octavia Hill (Gerri Farrell), known campaigner for fair living conditions, to be part of the redevelopment plan. We hear some laborious backstory from Hill, rather ponderously delivered. Introducing lesbian overtones, she tells her companion Harriot (Deborah Klayman) of the double male betrayal by her father and by artist John Ruskin which all seems to carry little significance.
Before all of this, however, we see an opening scene from a previous generation and a metaphysical discussion between author Mary Shelley (Klayman), poet William Blake (Timothy Harker) and scientist Benjamin Franklin (Tom Neill). The three historical figures are the ghosts in the title, first overlooking the action, reflecting upon what they see, and then connecting directly with the future. There is a rather over-played séance scene – Mrs Cook (Farrell) gurning and shrieking – and philosophical debate between Blake and Hill.
The projection (Chris Lince) on the back wall is the star of the show. A central Faraday cage throws out electrical sparks, an indicator of the arrival of the ghosts. Scenes through a window, wall lights, maps of the area, and images of the working power station add to the success of the story telling, culminating in a magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral.
A six-part close harmony song that breaks the fourth wall, masquerading as a pub singalong, seems incongruous with all that has gone before.
This new work is brimming with ideas and interesting historical characters but lacks overall coherence. Perhaps there is room for more than one play here. Beyond Octavia Hill wanting a new electric cooker, and some observations that the lights on the north bank of the Thames look pretty, there is little suggestion that the move towards electricity is a positive one. But this is a Southwark story, and the bias is forgivable.
Reviewed on 26th September 2022
by Phillip Money
Photography by Martin Butterworth
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