Ghosts on a Wire

Linda Wilkinson
Linda Wilkinson, as part of Totally Thames Festival
Union Theatre

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Ali Kemp as Sarah Shelfer, Andrew Fettes as William Helfer and Tom Neill as Benny Credit: Martin Butterworth
Andrew Fettes as Dr Lyon Playfair, Timothy Harker as Edmund, Deborah Klaymn as Mary Shelley and Tom Neill as George Credit: Martin Butterworth
Deborah Klayman as Harriot Yorke and Gerri Farrell as Octavia Hill Credit: Martin Butterworth
Deborah Klayman as Harriot Yorke, Gerri Farrell as Octavia Hill and Andrew Fettes as Dr Lyon Playfair Credit: Martin Butterworth
Timothy Harker as William Blake and Ali Kemp as Hester Thrale Credit: Martin Butterworth

Part of a project called Blackfriars Stories, Ghosts on a Wire centres on the building of the world’s largest coal-fired power station. Known as The Pioneer, it began generating for the City of London Electric Lighting Company in 1891. Its promoters, represented here by Dr Lyon Playfair (Andrew Fettes), sought the support of social reformer Octavia Hill (Gerri Farrell) but its construction would destroy homes and disperse a community and its smoke would contaminated the air, all anathema to her interest in providing community housing and the promotion of fresh air and green spaces (she was one of the founders of the National Trust).

We see the effects The Pioneer had on the area through the eyes of publican William Shelfer (Andrew Fettes), his wife Sarah (Ali Kemp) and their neighbour Benny (Tom Neill).

This is very much local history, for after World War II, the enlarged Pioneer, just a little upriver from the Union Theatre, was replaced on the same site by a new Bankside Power Station (now the home of Tate Modern).

Linda Wilkinson starts her play a century before the main story. Flashes of lightning in Chris Lince’s video projections, which provide the scenic background, introduce characters from an earlier century. There is Michael Faraday (Tom Neill), scientist and pioneer in the study of electricity. There is writer Mary Shelley (Deborah Klayman) in whose Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, electricity seems to provide the spark of life to animate Frankenstein’s creation. There is Hester Thrale (Ali Kemp), diarist and member of Dr Johnson’s literary circle. There is artist and poet William Blake (Timothy Harker), opponent of industrialisation including the development of Boulton and Watt’s Albion Mills which also brought coal-fired pollution and put men out of work on the South Bank a century before The Pioneer (the subject of this dramatist’s earlier play, Albion in Flames). As ghosts, they will infiltrate Octavia Hill’s world.

The facts are well based on research but the writing involves a lot of exposition with a touch of the schoolroom. The opposition of interests lacks dramatic expression and the characters are rather one-dimensional. The duplicitous businessmen are played as conventional baddies, The Shelfters and their lighterman friend at the Waterman’s Arms much more real.

From an awkward start, Gerri Farrell grows into a more believable Octavia Hill with a hint that she might be a lesbian in the scenes with her companion Harriot Yorke (Deborah Klayman), and indeed they were buried together. When both Harriot and Sarah Shelfer attend a seance, Gerri Farrell has an hilarious time playing the medium Mrs Cook in a scene in which Faraday and Blake take a disruptive part. It is an amusing but irrelevant diversion. In another odd episode, there is a music hall number with song-sheet provided. It is delivered with energy then switches back to the production’s main style in which director P K Taylor makes the mixture of characters from different centuries work smoothly.

The sharp divide that The Pioneer characterised—providing electrical power and the convenience it brought to those on the North Bank while disrupting the lives and damaging the health of those South of the Thames—may not be as obvious today; all inner London is becoming gentrified. However, the problem of preserving Blake’s “green and pleasant land” while exploiting industrial developments hasn’t gone away. Will new technology see Blake’s spirit made happy by the return of the windmills? Ghosts on a Wire reminds us that Octavia Hill coined the idea of a Green Belt; is it also offering a gleam of hope for the future?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton