Charles Dickens & M R James
Middle Ground Theatre Company
Grand Theatre, Blackpool
Even on a good day, actor Jack Shepherd has the look of a haunted man.
It’s an appearance of anxiety that has served him well—along with his TV and stage audiences—for more than 50 years in fact. So couple him here with another old hand like Terrence Hardiman, who has most recently frightened young TV audiences witless as the Demon Headmaster, and you have something of a dream ticket—for a touring production designed to invoke nightmares—from the equally-dependable Middle Ground theatre company.
It’s a two-for-the-price-of-one offer on several levels, frightening twice nightly with M R James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad, as well as Charles Dickens’s The Signalman. And with gale-force sounds indoors, to equal the real thing outside, this Victorian gem of a theatre is the ideal location in which to admire the writing of two of that period’s key writers.
Even adapted for the stage, they remain models of concise storytelling, careful character development and mounting menace.
In both cases, Shepherd plays the victim of ghostly locations, a seaside hotel room or the rather more forbidding entrance to a railway tunnel. The latter is a particularly effective design by Michael Lunney, who also directs both plays.
Either as the haunted holidaymaker, a sceptical scientist who has no time for ghosts or as the railway signalman with premonitions of disaster, this is classy old-school acting, a convincing and polished performance throughout.
Hardiman is the foil to both characters, equally assured as either an ex-Army officer or retired coffee merchant. Dicken Ashworth completes a trio of familiar faces as a starched hotel manager or railway inspector.
It remains a measure of the success of such theatre that it provokes at least one authentic scream from the audience – in this case right on cue from an adolescent school party member. Just occasionally the sound and lighting needed to be rather more sharp and piercing.
Reviewer: David Upton