Two Victorian Tales

The Signalman by Charles Dickens and The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy

Dramatised and performed by Raymond Sargent

Customs House, South Shields, and touring

(2005)

Review by Peter Lathan

A rather chilly January Sunday night in South Shields is not a time when you would expect to see a theatre about two-thirds full for a one-man show by an actor/adapter who is, as far as most of the audience is concerned, unknown. It speaks volumes for the trust its audience has in the Customs House that this is just what happened on 16th January.

And that trust was not betrayed. Raymond Sargent's adaptation of these two classic Victorian stories was very enjoyable and the audience was well-satisfied with the latest Customs House offering.

There are two ways for one man to tell a story on stage: there is the intensely physical approach exemplified by Guy Masterson's Animal Farm or there is the more restrained manner which Raymond Sargent chooses in this performance. Dressed in Victorian clothing, he greets the audience as they enter the theatre and introduces the evening by outlining to us the facilities offered by the theatre (not just the provision of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks but that new technological development, the water closet), before moving on to the main business of the evening.

There is some very simple scenery - chairs and a versatile shelving unit - and a few very small props, but otherwise everything is down to his voice and movement. At times he addresses the audience directly; at times he plays individual parts, addressing the space where he had stood as another character a moment or two ago; and at times allowing sound effects and music to set the atmosphere.

And there lies my one criticism of the evening: at times the sound was too loud, making the audience strain to hear his voice. Were it just a little louder, he would not have been heard. Fortunately these times were few.

As the narrator his carriage is upright and his voice controlled - a true Victorian - but as he moves from character to character he changes the accent and timbre of his voice to suit, particularly noticeable in the Hardy piece with its characteristic Wessex (Sargent's native Dorset), and small changes in carriage and stance are enough to make the differentiation clear. In short, he performs each character. What we see is not simple storytelling, but a play.

The pieces are well chosen. Both have an air of the supernatural - obviously so in the Dickens, more subtly in the Hardy, which has its roots in folk tradition - and together they make for an excellent evening's entertainment.