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'The Signalman' at the Old Red Lion

One would hope that the intimate theatre space above the Old Red Lion pub would be a perfect place to stage a Gothic Dickensian adaptation of the classic tale of ‘The Signalman’. And, while the aesthetic intentions of the production mean well, a distinct lack of character and plot development leave this two-hander haunting feeling a little flat.

Photo Credit: Elee Nova

For those not familiar, Dickens’ original short story follows the protagonist meeting a signalman troubled by sightings of a ghost in a train tunnel, instructing him hurriedly to get out of the way. After each of these sightings, a railway accident occurs, which is when the sightings begin to become more impactful as we never know what the next tragedy to unfold will be.

Something tells me that the script of this retelling of the story could have brought to light more societal issues; perhaps the industrial anxieties of the Victorian age could have been incorporated into the signalman’s fear. That’s not to say that Tim Larkfield, playing the Signalman himself, doesn’t put on a show. In what feels like a short 50 minutes, he carries the production smoothly as he flits between his persona as a chipper, singing railway worker and something far more distantly sinister as hints of the supernatural taunt him down a dark tunnel. He has perfected his wide-eyed stare into the imaginary haunted depths.

I’m not sure I can say the same for Helen Baranova, playing the new character of the ‘crossing sweeper’ replacing the narrator of the original story. There is not much room for Baranova to expand her performance of the young male character, who remains silent until the very last line of the play. While it is understandable that the quiet nature of the character seeks to emphasise the loneliness of the protagonist, some of her childish reactions come off as clichéd and don’t particularly add to the plot.

Photo Credit: Elee Nova

Stylistically, the show does well. Sound designer Samuel Welch creates a convincing soundscape of the isolated countryside through wind and birdsong, contrasting the quieter sections set in the danger of the tunnel. Particularly, the dinging of a bell which the signalman is used to responding to becomes distorted, sounding akin to somebody screaming, just as the main character becomes more delusional with fear. Much of this paranoia is also conveyed through the lighting design, courtesy of Tyrian Purple, who chooses to focus on red and purple lights inside the tunnel, and yellow, brighter lights outside. This ensures there is always a compelling competition between the liminal and the realistic, paying homage to the original short story.

And yet, while the lights and sound design do contribute to a certain aesthetic, it feels pushing a boundary too far to be considered a frightening aesthetic. While it is understandable that any chilling ghost story needs a build-up towards when the true scares take place, such a build-up here takes place in strange one-off sequences which seem not to lead anywhere; the twist ending of the play, too, happens in one of these strange offhand moments of shock. And while such bursts of theatrical energy may shock an audience out of its quiet mist for a few seconds, the fear and suspense simply vanish as soon as the lights come up for the actors’ bows, leaving the conclusion of the play feeling unsatisfying.

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