Bread & Roses Theatre
Reviewed – 13th October 2019
“As a literary exercise about an intriguing moment in history it is well constructed and makes some significant points, but as a theatrical, period thriller, it never quite grips us”
Deeply affected by escaping a train derailment unscathed, Charles Dickens wrote ‘The Signalman’ as a Christmas ghost story which also allowed a social comment on the problems of safety and the pressurised working conditions on the railway. Appealing to the Victorians’ fascination with the supernatural as well as focusing on a hot topic of the day, Dickens’ tale is an interesting insight into an era of the juxtaposed worlds of spirituality and technical innovation. Through the anxiety of the signalman and his premonitory visions, he describes the psychological wear and tear of a lonely job requiring little skill but which shoulders the huge responsibility of passenger safety. The narrator spots the signalman at the bottom of a steep railway cut and out of curiosity, decides to befriend him. Although a somewhat underwhelming storyline for today’s audience, the sense of mystery comes from the initial impression the signalman gives to the narrator of his ‘troubled’ mind and which grows as the narrative between them becomes more involved. From the outset, Dickens’ protagonist is clearly haunted by the mental strain of long nights listening out for the warning bell to avert any possible catastrophe.
Faithful to the original text, Martin Malcolm’s stage adaptation reconstructs the dialogue as a monologue by the signalman and introduces Joe, a crossing sweeper, as his silent listener. The production opens with the signalman clearing the aftermath of an accident and recounting it in detail to the sweeper. The account weaves in details of the Staplehurst disaster itself, at which Dickens helped his fellow travellers who lay injured. As the play goes on, we hear how the signalman is increasingly disturbed by the stranger who stands at the mouth of the tunnel, his warnings and the tragedies which follow. Tim Larkfield, as the Signalman, does a good job in creating and sustaining his character from the script but, single-handed, the build-up of tension is a strain. Rather than being drawn into the sensation of foreboding suspense, what results is more of a thoughtful take on the Victorian dramatic monologue. Unfortunately, considering the amount of time she is on stage, Helen Baranova also misses an opportunity for an imaginative cameo role as Joe. Even as a mute waif, her purpose as a vehicle for the storytelling could bring dimension to the whole performance with a thought-through, Dickensian personality – Smike, for example – rather than simply following with facial echoing.
The direction (Sam Raffal) is clean cut and incorporates an illusory soundscape and some dramatic lighting, especially towards the end, but to lure the audience with the torments of the signalman, it needs more of these ideas throughout. As a literary exercise about an intriguing moment in history it is well constructed and makes some significant points, but as a theatrical, period thriller, it never quite grips us.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Bread & Roses Theatre as part of Clapham Fringe
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